What does “byzantine” mean? Used as an adjective in lower case, it means intricate and unnecessarily complicated. But how did a word referring to the Byzantine Empire take on such a meaning?

It’s a question William Safire pursued in his Political Dictionary. Safire centered on two definitions: (1) “Convoluted; Machiavellian; characterized by scheming, backbiting, and similarly nefarious behavior often attributed to denizens of the centers of power” and (2) “labyrinthine, arcane, mysteriously complex.” They stem from the fact that “the court of the [Byzantine] emperor was marked by rivalries, duplicity, and violence.”

It’s the second definition that interests me here. Safire expands upon it that for U.S. writers, a synonym for byzantine would be “deviously complex.”

A byzantine system, illustrated

What follows is a graph from my report on North Carolina’s ABC system. Imagine being a North Carolina distillery wanting to get your product to North Carolina consumers. Here’s the system you face. Would you not call this byzantine?

It sure seems labyrinthine, arcane, and deviously complex to me!

(Click the graph for the full size.)