Mitt Romney, trying hard to attract far right-wing voters, has garnered severe criticism in his use of language for having said he was a “severely conservative governor” of Massachusetts. Many learned people find fault with this use of the word severely (never mind the word conservative).
Calling Romney “self-destructive,” New York Times columnist Paul Krugman archly maintained the most frequent meanings of severe are “disabled, depressed, ill, limited, and injured.” Another supercilious columnist said Romney spoke of conservatism “as though it were a disease.” (Hmm, maybe he's on to something.)
But Romney’s getting a bum rap, at least on this point. Despite the fact that the phrase “severely conservative” does sound a bit peculiar, it actually makes perfect sense. Look at the dictionaries.
Webster's New International (2nd edition) likes “serious in feeling or manner, sedate, grave, austere” as severe’s first definition. Nothing odd about that for a conservative, is there?
Webster’s more up-to-date Collegiate Dictionary (11th edition) gives the primary meaning as “strict in judgment, discipline, or government,” followed by “stringent,” “restrictive,” “scrupulously exacting,” “establishing exacting standards of accuracy and integrity in intellectual processes,” “sober,” and “restrained.” So far, so good.
The Oxford English Dictionary gives the first meaning as “rigorous in condemnation or punishment,” followed by “strict in matters of conduct,” “austere with oneself,” “shunning laxity or self-pleasure.”
Much further down the list in all the lexicons is the meaning that Romney’s critics would like to ascribe to his turn of phrase—“harsh, inflicting physical discomfort or pain, attended with a maximum of distress.”
Roget’s Thesaurus gives as synonyms for severe: “uncompromising, unyielding, obdurate, arbitrary, iron-handed, and arrogant.”
So admit it: Romney is “severely” conservative (or at least he wants to be so regarded by the GOP base). If you want to criticize him, I’ll give you a list of more substantive issues than his alleged misuse of that word.
Whether the Bard of Buffalo Bayou is severe or not depends on whether he gets up on the conservative or liberal side of his bed. You be the judge:
Show me a man who is strong and severe,
Obdurate, arrogant, grave, and austere,
Show me a man who is stringent and rigorous,
Vital and vigilant, virile and vigorous,
Show me a man who is strict and restrictive,
Sober, exact—and a little vindictive.
Show me a man who is harsh and sedate,
Looking unpleasant from something he ate,
Show me that man, hard as rock, ossified—
And I’ll bet he’ll be on the conservative side.