Democracy: that form of government in which the sovereign power resides in the people as a whole

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Credit: Evan Vucci/Associated Press

[…] we here highly resolve that these dead shall not have died in vain—that this nation, under God, shall have a new birth of freedom—and that government of the people, by the people, for the people, shall not perish from the earth.

Abraham Lincoln, Gettysburg Address (1863)

Democracy is an ancient idea, coming to us from Athens in the sixth century BCE—though the Classical Greek idea of who had the right to vote in matters of state was different from our modern, more inclusive view. Our word democracy comes, via French and Latin, from the Greek demokratia, which was formed from demos “people” and kratos, meaning “strength”, “power” or “rule”—so “government by the people”, as Lincoln phrased it.

Kratos hasn’t given us many English words beyond the ubiquitous suffix -cracy, of which more in a moment. A cratometer is a device that measures the magnifying power of lenses. And geologists have used the terms orocratic (“mountain strength”) and pediocratic (“plain strength”) to designate geological periods in which mountain-building or erosion, respectively, are the dominant forces in the landscape. They also used to refer to the ancient, stable core of a continent as a kratogen. This means something like “strength formation” and presumably refers to the long-term stability of these regions. But the word has since been shortened to craton, which seems to be the more common usage now.

But -cracy has been the dominant legacy of kratos in English. In contrast to democracy we have aristocracy, “best rule” (for a particular usage of “best” defined by social status), and autocracy, “self rule”, for an absolute monarch who answers to no-one. Less commonly seen nowadays is timocracy, “value rule”, a term over which Greek philosophers disagreed. For Aristotle, the word implied rule by people who owned some minimum amount of property; for Plato, it indicated rulers who valued honourable behaviour. Aristotle’s meaning is duplicated in plutocracy, “wealthy rule”. A gerontocracy is ruled by the elderly, a hierocracy is ruled by priests, and a theocracy by gods (or their earthly representatives). An isocracy or a pantisocracy is ruled by everyone, with equal power. An androcracy is governed by men, a gynæcocracy by women. Oddly, the latter is by far the older word, dating from the seventeenth century, while the male equivalent is first recorded by the Oxford English Dictionary in 1903. Perhaps gynæcocracy was considered so aberrant that it urgently needed a label, while androcracy was just the normal state of things. The advent of Communism brought with it a need for a new word—ergatocracy, government by the workers, which first appeared in English in 1920. As an ironic contrast to the assumptions underlying the word aristocracy, we have kakistocracy, “government by the worst”. Equally undesirable are ochlocracy, “government by the mob”, barbarocracy “government by barbarians” and kleptocracy, “government by thieves”. The alarming word pornocracy, “government by prostitutes”, refers specifically to the influence of the Empress Theodora upon the Byzantine emperor Justinian. Despite being considered a saint by the Eastern Orthodox Church, Theodora’s reputation has never recovered from the salacious allegations in ProcopiusSecret History, in which she is described as the “most depraved of all courtesans”. A near-synonym, hetærocracy, has had an amusing double life. Literally “government by companions”, it has been used to mean “government by courtesans”, but also “government by fellows”—as in, the fellows of an English university college. That must have been the cause of a few brittle, erudite jokes in the Fellows’ Dining Room, over the years.

All of these words are, I think, legitimately formed from Greek roots. But in more modern times people have thrown caution to the winds, and pressed all sorts of prefixes into use. For this to work, the correct -cracy suffix, which represents the original kratos, often accretes the recurring “o” of the Greek prefixes above, so that -ocracy has become a word-forming suffix in its own right. There are simply to many of these to deal with individually. The punning mediocracy, “government by the mediocre” has been around for a century, whereas meritocracy is barely fifty years old. In various times and places, various groups have risen to power and influence—so we have landocracy (landowners), plantocracy (sugar planters), cottonocracy (cotton-growers), albocracy (white people) , shopocracy (shop-owners), papyrocracy (newspaper publishers), clubocracy (members of elite London clubs), chumocracy (friends of the ruling elite), millocracy (mill-owners), technocracy (technologists) and my personal favourite, beerocracy (brewers). Foolocracy needs no explanation.

And then there’s the curious bureaucracy, formed from the French bureau, “office”, which notably lacks the “o” common to all the other -cracy examples above, but is nevertheless pronounced as if it has one. In Future Shock (1970) Alvin Toffler offered his vision of what an organization might look like if it tried to eliminate bureaucracy and operate with a flexible and informal organizational style—he called it an ad-hocracy.

Now, demos. For the Greeks, at a time when few people travelled more than a few miles from the place they were born, demos also referred to the place inhabited by a particular group of people—a nation or a region—and that sense lurks in the background of many English dem- words. It’ll reappear in my final example.

Demos has given us a number of currently relevant words in addition to democracy. There’s demagogue, “leader of the people”, which used to have a positive sense, but it now more often applied to those who appeal to the passions of the mob in order to raise themselves to power. And there’s epidemic, “on the people”, which refers to an infectious disease that appears and spreads widely in a particular region; if it spreads around the globe it is a pandemic, from “all the people”; if it settles into a place so that it is always present to some extent, it has become endemic, “in the people”. That final word has assumed a broader meaning, “specific to a group of people or a certain place”—so we have the idea of endemic plants, for instance, which are native to a specific place, and to be contrasted with exotics, which are intruders from elsewhere.

Demegoric refers to the art of public speaking. Demography is the study of the living conditions of groups of people, and demographics are the characteristics of groups of people. A demonym is a name for people who live in a particular place—Liverpudlians from Liverpool, Angelenos from Los Angeles, Michiganders from Michigan, Kittitians from St Kitts, and so on. A demophil is a “friend of the people”, pretty much a synonym for philanthropist, and such a person is described as being philodemic. Demotic means “pertaining to the common people”—Demotic Greek is the current form of spoken Greek, descended from Ancient Greek; Demotic Egyptian was the simple writing style used by the common people of Ancient Egypt, distinct from the hieroglyphic (“sacred carving”) symbols used by the priesthood.

Demos is also embedded in a few Ancient Greek personal names, two of which are more familiar in their Latinized versions. Demosthenes means “vigour of the people”, Democritus means “chosen of the people”, and Academus means “of a silent region”. An area of land near Athens, said to have been owned by the legendary Greek hero Akademos, was planted with trees and named the Akademia. The philosopher Plato subsequently gave lectures among these trees—the “groves of Academe”. Which is where we get our word academy.

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