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Did the word "idiocracy" exist prior to the release of the movie of the same title, or is it a neologism coined by its screenwriters?

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  • If you look at Ngram, the term goes back 200 years, with changing meanings. It's hard to tell from context in many cases, but the term was definitely used in the sarcastic sense prior to the movie.
    – Hot Licks
    Mar 20, 2020 at 12:12

5 Answers 5

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Interestingly, the word already existed as far back as 1681, and originally meant:

Peculiarity of constitution; that temperament, or state of constitution, which is peculiar to a person; idiosyncrasy.

So it was basically an alternative form to "idiosyncrasy" and was just re-appropriated for its other meaning.

However, even more interestingly, I see a reference from the OED to the use of this word with the current interpretation of "idiot form of government" (made by an author named Thomas Sinclair) from all the way back in 1878 (and my sincere apology for the unfortunate fact that the cited quotation is antisemitic):

No Jew of them all would..set up a theocracy, or *idiocracy, for this is the exact word, more eagerly and remorselessly.

Great question; I was surprised by what I discovered.

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    The original use you cite makes sense if you know the origin of the word "idiot". In Ancient Greek, idiṓtēs means "private citizen", which contrasts with something public or shared, with no (direct) implication of stupidity. Though most likely the screenwriter thought of the government of a state ruled by fools, which I think is a banal use of the word.
    – loevborg
    Aug 19, 2010 at 13:21
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    Actually, the part that I found interesting was the fact that the original use of the word had no connection to a form of government. The -cracy in the old "idiocracy" therefore came from the Greek krasis (mixture) rather than kratos (rule, strength). To add another interesting fact about idio-, we also get the linguistic term "idiolect" from that same root, and it means, a way of speaking particular to the individual -- like the way you might speak to your cat or your significant other. (Really just a lot of interesting things about this word!)
    – Kosmonaut
    Aug 19, 2010 at 13:38
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Dictionary.com reports the words derives from idio-, and a word that is mixture of French, and Greek.

The New Oxford American Dictionary reports that idio- means "distinct, private, personal, own"; its origin is from Greek idios (own, distinct).

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The term derives from two Greek words:

Idiotis, which means private person and in ancient Greek had a negative connotation as a selfish individual that does not care about the common matters and the collective good.

Kratos, which means power, rule, dominance (Similar to democracy power of the demos/people)

These two words together basically mean: "The rule of the idiots"

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    This explains what the word means but doesn't address the question which was about the word's origin in English. Mar 20, 2020 at 6:42
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I was sure that one of the men present when America was establishing itself as a democracy said such a system could only result in an idiocracy. That celebrity and popularity would become the criteria for presidents and this would be disastrous. Whoever it was had very little regard for the general populous, thinking them unworthy of a vote equal to that of one of the ruling class. Good prediction for maybe the wrong reasons. Hopefully I'll be back to cite the quote and name the author.

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  • I tried to find the alleged quote with Founders Online but came up with nothing even with wildcard searches.
    – Laurel
    Nov 22, 2023 at 14:07
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It is a combination of idiot and democracy, and meant to refer to a democracy of idiots. There are similar examples like meritocracy (a democracy based on merit) or autocracy.

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  • I didnt downvote, but you were likely dv'ed b/c the question was about prior origins beyond the simple combination of the two words.
    – mfg
    Aug 19, 2010 at 15:55
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    Also, I would want to see some supporting evidence for the claim that it is based on "democracy". "Autocracy" is certainly an independent formation, and I believe that "meritocracy" is as well. It's quite possible that the coiners of the word for the film had "democracy" in mind, but it's equally possible that they were just basing it on the range of "-cracy" words.
    – Colin Fine
    Aug 19, 2010 at 16:53
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    @Colin: you are correct. The ending -cracy or -crasy comes from Greek kratia, which means power. The word demo comes from Greek demos, meaning the people, giving us power of the people for the word democracy. The same applies to meritocracy, which has nothing to do with democracy, and idiosyncrasy (Greek idiosunkrasia). PS: I'm not 100% certain of the transliteration from Greek (I'm not native English), but the meanings are correct. See also the note of Kosmonaut under the answer above.
    – Abel
    Aug 19, 2010 at 18:02

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