Words ending -(o)cracy

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A number of words have the ending –(o)cracy and serve to identify who are the rulers, the dominant or most powerful class, within a nation or other large social group - though some of these words also have other uses (see below). The ending –cracy comes from the Greek κράτος (kratos), which means ‘rule’, ‘power’, or ‘sovereignty’, and in all but a few cases the first part of the word also has a Greek derivation.

The most common words in this group are democracy, aristocracy, bureaucracy, and plutocracy.

Democracy means ‘rule by the people’: the first part of the word comes from the Greek δῆμος (dēmos), ‘the (common) people’. For some discussion of the concept of democracy and the distinctive marks of a democratic constitution see Democracy. There is an adjective democratic, meaning ‘related to, or distinctive of, democracy’, and a noun democrat, a person who is committed to, or a defender of, democratic institutions. For help with the pronunciation of these words and other words ending –cracy, -crat, -cratic see the Note on Pronunciation.

Aristocracy means ‘rule by the best (people)’: the first part of the word comes from the Greek ἄριστος (aristos), ‘best’. Clearly there may be disagreement about who are the best people (to rule). The Greek philosophers, Plato and Aristotle, believed that it is those who are best fitted by character and intellect to rule; at other times ‘the best’ have been equated with the wealthy or the ‘best born’, i.e., the nobility. In contemporary English the word aristocracy is almost always used as a collective term for the nobility or the ‘upper class’. The adjective aristocratic means ‘characteristic of the ‘upper class’’, and the noun aristocrat denotes a member of this class. Insofar as aristocracy means ‘rule by the best (people)’, its polar opposite is kakistocracy, i.e., rule by the worst (people), those least fitted by character and/or intellect to rule. The first part of the word comes from the Greek κάκιστος, (kakistos), ‘worst’.

Bureau, the first part of the word bureaucracy, came into English from French. (Bureau, which derives from the Late Latin burra (shaggy cloth), was originally a type of cloth used for covering desks and tables.) A bureau may be either a type of writing desk (with drawers, pigeon holes, etc.); or an office or agency providing a service to the public (such as an employment bureau, a marriage bureau or a news bureau); or a government department. The word bureaucracy may denote either a complex administrative system designed to deal with a large amount of work in a routine fashion; or government by such a system, i.e., one in which most decisions are taken by state officials or civil servants rather than by elected representatives. The word is sometimes used pejoratively of a system of administration that is over-complex or over-rigid so that action is impeded by official procedures, red tape, etc. Rather differently, bureaucracy may refer collectively to the civil servants and other officials who work within a bureaucracy, while a bureaucrat is an (often high-ranking) official within a bureaucracy, and the adjective bureaucratic describes such a system, often pejoratively.

Plutocracy means ‘rule by the wealthy’: the first part comes from the Greek πλοῦτος (ploutos, ‘wealth’, ‘riches’). The word is also used to refer to the class of wealthy individuals who exercise power or have great influence in a country by reason of their wealth. A plutocrat is a member of this class, and the adjective plutocratic means ‘characteristic of a plutocracy or a plutocrat’.

Other, less common, words with the ending –(o)cracy include:

Ochlocracy – the ‘ch’ is pronounced as a ‘k’, IPA: / ɒk 'lɒk rə sɪ/ – means either ‘rule by the mob’ or ‘the mob that rules’: the first part comes from the Greek ὄχλος (ochlos, ‘crowd’, ‘throng’, ‘mob’). Ochlocrat and ochlocratic are also found.

Mobocracy has the same meaning as ochlocracy. Its first part is the English word ‘mob’, which means ‘unruly crowd’ and is an abbreviation of the Latin phrase mobile vulgus, ‘the fickle crowd’. Mobocrat and mobocratic are also found.

Theocracy is rule by God or a god: the first part of the word comes from the Greek θεός (theos), ‘god’. The word may be applied to states in which supreme political authority lies with priests who claim to govern in the name of God or a god. Theocrat and theocratic are also found.

Hierocracy is rule by priests, ecclesiastics, or churchmen. Its first part comes from the Greek ἱερός (hieros) ‘sacred’, ‘holy’. Hierocrat and hierocratic are also found.

Ecclesiocracy means the same as hierocracy: the first part of the word comes from the Greek ἐκκλησία (ekklēsia), ‘assembly’, ‘church’.

Gerontocracy – pronounced with a soft ‘g’ - means either ‘rule by the old’ or ‘a governing body of old people’. Its first part comes from the Greek γέρων (gerōn), genitive γέροντος (gerontos), ‘old man’. Gerontocrat and gerontocratic are also found.

Gynaecocracy – pronounced with either a soft or a hard ‘g’, IPA: /,dʒaɪ nɪ 'kɒk rə sɪ or ,gaɪ nɪ 'kɒk rə sɪ/ - means either ‘rule by women’ or ‘a ruling body of women’. Its first part comes from the Greek γυνή (gunē), genitive γυναικός (gunaikos), ‘woman’. Gynaecocrat and gynaecocratic are also found.

Technocracy may mean either ‘rule by experts’ (i.e., by scientists, engineers, economists, and the like, rather than by elected politicians) or ‘a body of experts who occupy positions in government’. The first part of the word comes from the Greek τέχνη (technē), ‘skill’, ‘craft’. Unlike the words technocracy and technocratic, which are rare in everyday speech, the noun technocrat, meaning ‘an expert occupying a position in government’, is in common use.

Kleptocracy means ‘rule by a thief or thieves’: the first part of the word comes from the Greek κλέπτης (kleptēs), ‘thief’. The word may be applied either to a state in which the ruler or rulers exploit its population and natural resources to increase their own wealth or to the ruling class in such a state. Kleptocrat and kleptocratic are also found.

Chumocracy means ‘government by friends’. The word was coined by journalists as a jocular description of the style of government of the former UK Prime Minister David Cameron, who characteristically discussed issues and reached decisions with the help of a small group of friends – see, e.g., The Guardian, 20/02/2017, p. 7. The word ‘chum’, used in informal speech to mean ‘a (close) friend’, was first used in the 17th century to mean ‘a person sharing rooms with another’ and is probably an abbreviated form of the expression ‘chamber fellow’. N.B. Do not use either chum or chumocracy in formal academic writing.

Note on pronunciation: The pronunciation of the words democracy, democratic, and democrat provides a model for the pronunciation of all the words on this page. With democracy the stress falls on the third syllable from the end (democracy), so similarly aristocracy, gerontocracy, etc; with democratic the stress falls on the second syllable from the end (democratic), so similarly aristocratic (but see further Aristocrat (pronunciation)), gerontocratic, etc; and with democrat it falls on the syllable before the -o- (democrat), so similarly aristocrat, gerontocrat, etc.

See also Words ending -archy.