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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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