Posted by: Jack Henry | August 24, 2021

Editor’s Corner: Worst Air B&B Host – Procrustes

Today I was reading an article and it referred to a Procrustean solution. I hadn’t heard that word for a long time, and I thought it was too good to pass up as an Editor’s Corner article. There are two other words I thought I should mention too: Sisyphean and Tantalean. These three words have something in common. First: they are all eponyms (words that come from people’s names). Second: these people are all from Greek myths. Rather than define the words first, I’ll tell you a little about the myths, and then you’ll see why the words mean what they do. The stories might even make them easier to remember.


In Greek mythology, Procrustes was a metal smith. He was no ordinary metal smith who would forge you a sword or make a doorknob for your house. No, Procrustes was a bandit and a scoundrel. He was called Procrustes “the stretcher” and “the subduer.” His favorite trick was to invite people in to sleep on his iron bed. If they did not fit (and nobody ever did), he would stretch them until they fit if they were too short, or he’d cut their legs off if they were too tall. Therefore, the word Procrustean describes “…situations where an arbitrary standard used to measure success, while completely disregarding obvious harm that results from the effort.” (Wikipedia)

Here are some additional uses of the word Procrustean that I thought were interesting (these are also from the Wikipedia article):

  • A Procrustean solution is the undesirable practice of tailoring data to fit its container or some other preconceived structure. In a Procrustean solution in statistics, instead of finding the best fit line to a scatter plot of data, one first chooses the line one wants, then selects only the data that fits it, disregarding data that does not, to "prove" some idea. It is a form of rhetorical deception made to forward one set of interests at the expense of others. The unique goal of the Procrustean solution is not win-win, but rather that Procrustes wins and the other loses. In this case, the defeat of the opponent justifies the deceptive means.
  • In computer science, a Procrustean string is a fixed length string into which strings of varying lengths are placed. If the string inserted is too short, then it is padded out, usually with spaces or null characters. If the string inserted is too long, it is truncated. The concept is mentioned in the Sinclair ZX81 and Sinclair Spectrum user manuals, where a portion of a string is replaced by another string using Procrustean assignment—the replacement string is truncated or padded in order to have length equal to the portion being replaced. Such an assignment is also sometimes referred to as Procrustean formatting.

Such craftiness and dishonestly is alive and well today, but it’s named after a mythical creature from long ago. And speaking of long, this will be too long if I continue with Sisyphus and Tantalus, so I’ll leave them for next time. In the meantime, stay away from iron beds and people nicknamed “The Stretcher.”

Kara Church

Pronouns: she/her/hers

Technical Editor, Advisory

619-542-6773 | Ext: 766773

Editing: Symitar Documentation Services

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