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Pronounced /kækɪˈstɒkrəsɪ/Help with pronunciation

Kakistocracy is the government of a state by its most unprincipled citizens. Writers down the years have found this to be an appropriate word with which to belabour either their political system or other people’s. The American poet James Russell Lowell wrote in a letter 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?

The first example we know of is dated 1829, in a book called The Misfortunes of Elphin, written by the English satirical writer Thomas Love Peacock. His sarcasm is ponderous and his language obscure:

They were utterly destitute of the blessings of those “schools for all,” the house of correction, and the treadmill, wherein the autochthonal justice of our agrestic kakistocracy now castigates the heinous sins which were then committed with impunity, of treading on old foot-paths, picking up dead wood, and moving on the face of the earth within sound of the whirr of a partridge.

Autochthonal refers to the indigenous people of a country (from Greek words that mean “sprung from the earth”); Agrestic has the sense of “relating to the country” (Latin ager, a field). Peacock meant by agrestic kakistocracy the English landed squirarchy who kept their tenants in line by severe punishments for offences such as poaching.

The word is Greek, from kakistos, the worst.

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Copyright © Michael Quinion, 1996–. All rights reserved.
Page created 1 Dec. 2007

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Last modified: 1 December 2007.