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We welcome back Stan Carey, a professional editor from Ireland who writes entertainingly about the English language on his blog Sentence First. Here Stan cuts through the red tape to take a long look at the word bureaucracy.

The word bureaucracy comes from the French bureaucratie, a spelling that was also used in English for a time but is now obsolete. Einstein described bureaucracy as "the death of all sound work," and the word's connotations remain negative today. It has become a byword for excessive administrative red tape and institutional rigidity.

Bureaucracy evokes the high degree of hierarchical organisation to be found in a filing cabinet or storage office, i.e. in a bureau. Its representatives even gave rise to a kind of jargon: bureaucratese. Bureaucracy reminds me of Dilbert, Kafka, Orwell, Brazil, and a job I had lifetimes ago that required every action, item, and action item to be signed and dated — including signatures and dates. On that note, here's a clip from Brazil:

The familiarity of bureaucracy overshadows its unusual morphology, which drew objections long before the word accrued its current pejorative associations. Added to the French base bureau is the suffix -cracy, from Greek -kratia, from kratos: strength, power, authority. So bureaucracy retained the French -eau- in its middle instead of adopting the usual linking -o- (democracy, technology). This awkward structure attracted fierce criticism from H.W. & F.G. Fowler:

The termination -cracy is now so freely applied that it is too late to complain of this except on the ground of ugliness. It may be pointed out, however, that the very special ugliness of bureaucracy is due to the way its mongrel origin is flaunted in our faces by the telltale syllable -eau-; it is to be hoped that formations similar in this respect may be avoided. (The King's English)

Henry Watson Fowler, the elder brother, repeated his disdain in A Dictionary of Modern English Usage:

bureaucrat, etc. The formation is so barbarous that all attempt at self-respect in pronunciation may perhaps as well be abandoned. . . . it is better to give the whole thing up, & pretend that -eau- is the formative -o- that ordinarily precedes -crat &c.; all is then plain sailing; it is only to be desired that the spelling could also be changed to burocrat &c.

"Special ugliness," "mongrel," "barbarous" — one can almost feel Fowler's blood pressure rising at these words' very existence. Malformed they might be, but bureaucrat and bureaucracy are perfectly respectable — unlike the common misspelling beaurocrat, which adopts the middle -o- that Fowler desired, but promotes the -eau- instead of dropping it. I have also come across beauracracy and bureauacracy, and no doubt there are other freakish forms in use. We may need a bureau to organise them.

How do you feel about bureaucracy and its unvenerable variants?


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Stan Carey is a scientist turned freelance editor from the west of Ireland. He shares his fascination with language, words and books on his blog, Sentence first, and on Twitter. Stan has a TEFL qualification, a history of polyglottism, and a lifelong love of stories and poetry. He writes articles about the English language for Macmillan Dictionary Blog. Click here to read more articles by Stan Carey.

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Comments from our users:

Wednesday April 21st 2010, 8:15 AM
Comment by: Tom W. (New York, NY)
I've despised bureaucracies since I was a child. But I never thought much about the word. Thanks for giving me something else to dislike.
Wednesday April 21st 2010, 9:06 AM
Comment by: Annie G. (Gladwyne, PA)
Breathes there a human with soul so dead who likes bureaucracy?!But until this moment I actually rather liked the word, which seemed, with its French "bureau" and its Greek "cracy" to give some charm and dignity to entities without a speck of either. Now, having looked at the word carefully the many times it appears in the article, I find that it really does look ridiculous. Sigh.
Wednesday April 21st 2010, 12:42 PM
Comment by: Stan Carey (Galway Ireland)Visual Thesaurus Contributor
Tom: My pleasure. You might appreciate P.J. Rourke's spin on the old proverb Man proposes, God disposes: "Government proposes, bureaucracy disposes; and the bureaucracy must dispose of government proposals by dumping them on us."

Annie: Funnily enough I like it too, or at least I like how it sounds: almost like a blue rockery. Its appearance and peculiar morphology interest rather than irritate me. Maybe in time it will win you over again, if only by wearing you down.
Wednesday April 21st 2010, 7:07 PM
Comment by: nannywoo is back (Wilmington, NC)Top 10 Speller
I have a ragged art poster, a photographic montage that shows a great oak tree thrusting its way toward the sky in the middle of a city scape. When you look closely, you see things in the picture that don't belong: a naked woman in the fork of the tree, an eye peeking through the branches in the sky, giant cockroaches and a black dog on the roof of--what's that? A building? But, no, if you look more closely it's a chest of drawers--some of us might say, a BUREAU. I have looked for the picture's source and title--once I saw it titled "The Sentinel." I've asked college students to "read" its meaning--we wonder if the tree actually is growing up out of the city or if the city is encroaching on the tree--and what the difference may be. But the discussion of bureaucracy makes me think. I wonder if the bureaus are telling us something about the nature of "civilization"?
Thursday April 22nd 2010, 8:29 AM
Comment by: Henryk W. (Roedovre Denmark)
I like the way the spelling honestly reflects the word's French origins (the fact itself being admittedly repugnant, but still a fact).

And, Annie G.: there does indeed, and there may even be two of them. I am thinking of one my recent teachers, a naturalised Dane like myself and a public servant, and of his praise of SENSIBLE bureaucracy as it was introduced in this country some 250 years ago, together with the enlightened monarchy; so was the bureaucracy, initially. The point was, it replaced an administrative and judiciary system whose decisions could be random and often based on the whims of Powers That Be. Now, at least everybody (or most everybody) was treated on equal basis. I see his point.

From there, bureaucracy has since tended to develop towards treating most everybody on equally impersonal, negligent, and insensible basis, which is probably one of the reasons even the spelling of its name has a negative sound to it.
Thursday April 22nd 2010, 8:36 AM
Comment by: Henryk W. (Roedovre Denmark)
- reasons WHY
Friday April 23rd 2010, 12:00 PM
Comment by: Jane B. (Winnipeg Canada)Top 10 Commenter
It bedevils me. I've reached the point where I don't want to leave the country as going anywhere necessitates my renewing my passport (and my husband's) and I hate facing up to that -- in two different locations! Sigh!

Someone else does our taxes now, more form-fillingout that I once did.

And as a teacher, I had the fun of a ton of forms. The saddest was once when I had requested help for a lad of 17 who still couldn't read past about Grade 2 (7). My request wasn't passed on. The reason in the office at the school? Of course, it's obvious. Mark was illiterate.

I left teaching shortly after that. I was hurting, physically as well as emotionally. I couldn't help him and realized that I was accomplishing nothing except increasing my pain.

Fortunately for me, a diagnosis was found soon after and I was able to get onto disability.

There was a ton of bureaucracy to deal with for that, too!

Everywhere one turns, it rears its... head?

My husband fought it whenever we went to France. We had American passports, both of us, though he was born in France and spoke it fluently.

He was nearly arrested cashing travellers' checks as 'the French are not permitted to have dollars!"

His French was too good to explain his situation to them. So I had to take over the cashing checks efforts after that.

Mainling anything was another way to get tied up in French bureaucracy... the line closed at 4. Never mind how many people were waiting stll in that line. The window was put down, and everyone tramped like a lamb (except for my husband who was more like that proverbial bull by then) to the end of the line that remained open past 4.
Monday April 26th 2010, 11:50 AM
Comment by: Stan Carey (Galway Ireland)Visual Thesaurus Contributor
VT: c'est sans culottes: That sounds like an interesting poster, and a strangely familiar one. Perhaps I saw it a long time ago. If bureaus are telling us something about civilization, I suppose they reflect its inherent need for order in the face of chaos. The chief problems arise when this order is reified or considered an end in itself.

Henryk: You make a good point. Bureaucracy served a useful purpose, and still does, to an extent. But it tends to take on a momentum of its own, and the more people there are, the more necessary — and troublesome — bureaucracy becomes.

Jane: Your experiences of bureaucracy seem quite nightmarish! Automated rules replacing reason or human connection. Form-filling can be an exasperating task, with so little room for error, not to mention the many grey areas of experience and description that fill people's lives.

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