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ETYMOLOGY—KAKISTOCRACY, KLEPTOCRACY

ALAS, WHAT an optimist I was back in April 2016! In what turned out to be the first of my Etymology for our Times series, the topic was ”Governing by Word”. The words included anarchy, democracy, monarchy, ochlocracy (rule by the mob), oligarchy (rule by a few), plutocracy (rule by the rich), and republic. As proof of my optimism, I even included meritocracy, “a political philosophy in which selection of those governing is based on their ability and talent.”

How could I have missed kakistocracy and kleptocracy? (Thanks, Michael, for suggesting these necessary additions.)

According to Merriam-Webster, “kakistocracy” is “government by the worst of people.” It comes from the Greek word κακό, kako, bad, in its superlative form, “baddest,” sorta. Some might say “worst.”

How do I name thee? Let me count the ways. No, because it’s an on-going list.

Illustration by Rick McKee appearing in madison.com.

According to M-W, “Lookups for kakistocracy spiked on June 29, 2017” after a woman’s tweet encouraging dictionary use; also, in January 2017, Paul Krugman had used the word in a column in The New York Times.

M-W cites kakistocracy’s first use in a 1644 sermon “Preached at the Publique Fast the ninth day of Aug. at St. Maries” by English clergyman Paul Gosnold.” I confess I didn’t attend his 1644 sermon, though it’s quite a good political rant: It ends with “transforming… our well-temperd Monarchy into a mad kinde of Kakistocracy. Good Lord!”

My sentiment precisely; just replace Monarchy with Democracy or Republic.

The Compact Edition of the Oxford English Dictionary agrees with M-W: Kakistocracy is “The government of the state by the worst citizen.” The OED’s earliest citation is from 1829, but its 1876 example from American James Russell Lowell is especially timely.

James Russell Lowell, 1819–1891, American poet, editor, and diplomat.

Lowell wrote in his Letters, “Is ours a government of the people, by the people, for the people, or a Kakistocracy rather, for the benefit of knaves at the cost of fools?”

M-W’s definition of “kleptocracy” is “government by those who seek chiefly status and personal gain at the expense of the governed; also: a particular government of this kind.”

The OED beats M-W on conciseness: Kleptocracy is defined as “A ruling body of thieves.” Its earliest reference is from 1819, suggesting that governmental theft came before governmental ineptitude, albeit only by a decade.

The Greek root word κλέπτω, klepto, means to steal, scrounge, or purloin. Perhaps we know it best in “kleptomania,” a compulsive need to steal.

Which would you prefer? A: Kakistocracy. B: Kleptocracy. C: Both. Or D: Neither.

Vote in November, and earlier if appropriate. ds

© Dennis Simanaitis, SimanaitisSays.com, 2018

2 comments on “ETYMOLOGY—KAKISTOCRACY, KLEPTOCRACY

  1. Gordon Craig
    July 27, 2018

    Amen, Amen, can’t wait to vote in November, try and stop this onslaught. bw, gordon (in California)

  2. carmacarcounselor
    July 28, 2018

    I was introduced to the word “kleptocracy” when researching the Bondesque (ballistic glass, oil slick and smoke screen generator – equipped) 1988 Mercedes 500SEL in the Petersen Collection that belonged to Ferdinand and Imelda Marcos.

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