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So Long, Solon!

Solon of Ancient Greece

As the Kennedy retrospectives this week remind us, 50 years ago our legislators were solons. Especially U.S. senators.

That’s solon with a lowercase “s.” It comes from Solon with a capital “s,” a renowned Athenian legislator of some 2,600 years ago. Speaking to the American Newspaper Publishers Association in April 1961, President Kennedy invoked his principles:

“Without debate, without criticism, no administration and no country can succeed—and no republic can survive. That is why the Athenian lawmaker Solon decreed it a crime for any citizen to shrink from controversy.”

And during the Kennedy years, Solon’s memory was frequently invoked in newspaper headlines and stories. For example, here’s an Associated Press story in the July 11, 1960, Spokane Spokesman-Review:

Sen. Kennedy Wins Backing
Of ‘Favorite Son’ Delegations

Solon May Capture
Win on Early Ballot

Los Angeles, July 10—Favorite son candidates for the Democratic presidential nomination began capitulating under pressure from the camp of Senator John F. Kennedy, which led backers of the Massachusetts solon to strengthen their predictions of victory “fairly early in the balloting.”

 

Here’s another two-deck headline from the summer of 1960 (I didn’t catch the name of the newspaper or the date):

Backers Say
Kennedy In
Good Health

 

Brother Assails
Claim Solon Has
Addison’s Disease

 

It wasn’t just during the Kennedy years that journalists used “solon.” It was in vogue for at least the latter part of the 20th century. On April 22, 1986, for example, a story in The Bulletin of central Oregon headlined that word with regard to other Kennedys:

 

Snub by Kennedy
Angers Ex-Solon

 

Former Sen. James Abourezk, who says he risked his life with a trip to Iran on behalf of Sen. Edward Kennedy, said today he will not resubmit a $100 contribution to candidate Joseph Kennedy.

 

In its heyday, “solon” was particularly useful as a headline word. It has just five letters compared with seven for “senator,” a virtue when a line is squeezed for space.

It also has an erudite air, implicitly complimenting both writer and reader for their knowledge of ancient history.

And for that matter, it implicitly complimented U.S. senators as well, associating them with one of the so-called Seven Wise Men of Greece.

That may be why we hardly ever see present-day members of the U.S. Congress referred to as “solons.” They no longer seem in the same league.

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