I learned a new word this week, courtesy of the invaluable Russian-born writer Masha Gessen:
Looking into the word further, I found two surprises:
- It’s been around for a long time. Longer, even, than the president’s comb-over.
- It’s derived from two Greek words
I’ll take that second point first: We shouldn’t be surprised to trace words to the original Greek. Especially not words ending in -ocracy. The Greeks invented democracy, after all—government by the demos, the common people.
Clearly—as the tobacco company used to say—we’ve come a long way, baby, from that ideal.
Anyway, “ocracy” yes, but I was surprised to find that the “kak” part of the word also came from the Greek. Once I found out what the word meant, I assumed it derived from kaka, the Hebrew word for shit. (Or caca, which Dictionary.com says also has ancient excrement-related origins, including the ancient Greek kakke.)
But no, it’s from kakistos, the Greek word for “worst.”
A brief history of “kakistocracy”
American Exceptionalism being what it is, many of my fellow citizens assume that surely ours must be the worst kakistocracy the world has ever seen. (“We’re #1!”)
I don’t know if we can judge that fairly yet, not while events are still unfolding. But I do know that our new kakistocrats have joined a club with a long history. Because the term dates all the way back to 1829 and a British novelist named Thomas Love Peacock.
The word traveled across the pond to America about nine years later, when a U.S. Senator named William Harper used it in a book about slavery.
“Anarchy is not so much the absence of government as the government of the worst—not aristocracy but kakistocracy—a state of things, which to the honor of our nature, has seldom obtained amongst men, and which perhaps was only fully exemplified during the worst times of the French revolution, when that horrid hell burnt with its most horrid flame.”
Harper believed the “honor of our nature” would prevent kakistocrats from taking the reins of government. A noble thought…but then we went and invented Twitter. Note that Harper positioned kakistocrats as the opposite of aristocrats. This would probably offend our Kakistocrat-in-Chief. Then again, Harper advocated for slavery, so they might find some common ground.
The first mention of a kakistocracy that we might recognize today came from the poet James Russell Lowell in 1876:
“What fills me with doubt and dismay is the degradation of the moral tone. Is it or is it not a result of Democracy? 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?”
After Lowell, the word went into hibernation for over a century, until liberal commentators trotted it out to describe the government of Conservative saint Ronald Reagan. But it’s a bipartisan insult. Apparently Glenn Beck used it to describe the Obama Administration.
If the Obama Administration was a kakistocracy, then call me a kakistocrat. To be continued on Monday (it’s too depressing for a Sunday blog).
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