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I have always understood commonwealth to be an association of countries. The most famous example being: "The Commonwealth of Nations, generally known simply as the Commonwealth, is a political association of 54 member states, nearly all former territories of the British Empire."

But in US TV they refer to the commonwealth of Kentucky or Pennsylvania. What does that mean and what does it derive from?

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    The official name is Commonwealth of Kentucky. It's the name of the state. – Weather Vane Nov 25 '20 at 10:04
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    @WeatherVane I see it's also Commonwealth of Pennsylvania. What does commonwealth mean here? – Anush Nov 25 '20 at 10:06
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    Kentucky is one of four U.S. states to officially use the term 'commonwealth'. Perhaps its derivation is historical, rather than etymological. Please see Commonwealth (U.S. state). – Weather Vane Nov 25 '20 at 10:06
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    Some countries are also known as a "commonwealth", e.g., the Commonwealth of Australia. – nnnnnn Nov 25 '20 at 10:09
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    Britain under Oliver Cromwell was also called a 'Commonwealth'. – Kate Bunting Nov 25 '20 at 10:11
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According to the Lexico online dictionary there are many definitions of the word 'commonwealth'. They all do, however, have a relationship to the original 16th century phrase 'common wealth' from which the word was derived.

At first reading the word could be taken to be a proto-socialist or early Christian concept following the idea that the members of a community 'held all things in common' as the Acts of the Apostles says that the members of the early church did but, in practice, actual 'commonwealths' did not do this.

Arguably the oldest, and certainly one of the most famous political entities to be called a 'commonwealth' was the rule of England under Oliver Cromwell as Lord Protector following the Civil War and the execution of Charles I. The idea behind this naming was that the country was ruled for the benefit of all its citizens rather than for the benefit of the royal family but private property was certainly not abolished and small political groups such as The Levellers and The Diggers who attempted to bypass individual ownership of land were severely put down very soon after the end of the Civil War.

It is this concept of 'commonwealth' that seems to be behind the naming of Pennsylvania, Massachusetts, Virginia and Kentucky. The idea is that first the colony and later the state exists for the benefit of its citizens, not for the benefit of anyone else, such as a king.

Another major meaning of 'commonwealth' is that of a voluntary grouping of nation states with no one state being dominant. This is the concept behind the Commonwealth of Nations (originally the British Commonwealth) which was set up after WW2 to preserve and foster links between the UK and its former imperial colonies as they gained independence.

This meaning is also older than many people think. For instance the former alliance of Poland and Lithuania under a single elected king which existed from 1569 to 1793 is referred to in English as a 'commonwealth'

As I said there are other meanings of 'commonwealth' but most of them are variations on these two themes.

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  • That's true in general, but not specific enough for the states that use this. I've put another answer with citations from two actual state websites, where they specifically say that they mean a government BY the people (representative democracy). – user3067860 Nov 25 '20 at 21:49
  • I wonder if it's relevant that Kentucky was considered part of Virginia until it became a separate state in 1792? (The consent to the separation expressed by the legislature of Virginia was actually passed three times.) – Michael Hardy Nov 26 '20 at 8:05
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    I think wikipedia is much clearer on this it comes from the old meaning of "wealth", which is "well-being", and is itself a loose translation of the Latin res publica (republic). Commonwealth is just another name for republic. This is also why the Polish Lithuanian aristocratic republic is called "commonwealth" – adjan Nov 26 '20 at 18:17
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    @adjan The head of the Commonwealth is the Queen of England, which seems unlikely if it just means “republic”. – Mike Scott Nov 26 '20 at 19:32
  • @MichaelHarvey That's in paragraph 3. – BoldBen Nov 27 '20 at 19:24
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Despite the literal definitions, the etymology, and the example labelings (the former colonies associated with the UK, the 4 US states), like many political terms it doesn't mean what it says.

'Commonwealth' means whatever the labelers want it to be. At most it means 'some kind of government where we want people other than an aristocracy to have some sort of rights, and maybe some organization'. If there is any technical meaning, it gets it only from the very precise situation in which it is used. Though it sounds like there is some vague socialist ideal in it, hardly any examples of commonwealths seem to imply any kind of collective economies or coordinated planned markets.

In other words, you can't take the dictionary definition or any particular examples and then point at a new situation and say 'Oh yeah this is definitely a commonwealth' or 'Wow, no way is this a commonwealth because it violates this one single part of the definition.'. Hm, no, you're right, dictatorships tend not to be easily called commonwealths. But that's about it.

Etymonline says it best:

In the U.S., it forms a part of the official name of ...(irrelevant state names elided)... but has no special significance.

In other words, in the US, 'commonwealth' just means 'government of a particular entity synonymous with 'state'.

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  • Indeed, seeking a precise definition for the current meaning of commonwealth is futile, because, although it once functioned as a common noun, that usage has become largely archaic; in its present-day usage it almost always functions as just a part of a proper name. Although a very wide range of political entities could be called commonwealths in some sense of that word, in actual practice, the word is nowadays almost never used for any entity that has not incorporated it into its official name. – jsw29 Nov 26 '20 at 16:13
  • I don't think you could say "commonwealth" is synonymous with "state"; Puerto Rico isn't a state, but it is a commonwealth. I agree the term means nothing, but the whole point of PR, and the discourse it occupies in US political battles, is that it isn't a state ... yet. – verbose Nov 27 '20 at 20:15
  • @verbose 'synonym' doesn't mean replaceable in all circumstances – Mitch Nov 27 '20 at 23:20
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The idea behind Commonwealth is in its etymology:

OED:

Etymology: In its history, like common weal n.; wealth , Middle English welthe , being a later formation, in same sense as weal, Old English wela . The two words were used indiscriminately [...]; but in the 16th cent. commonwealth became the ordinary English term in sense 2 [...].

In commonwealth, "common" = of the people; of the community, and "wealth (n.)" = a [large or entire] quantity.

Thus

2. The whole body of people constituting a nation or state, the body politic; a state, an independent community, esp. viewed as a body in which the whole people have a voice or an interest.

And thus

3.a. A state in which the supreme power is vested in the people; a republic or democratic state.

a1618 W. Raleigh Maxims of State (1651) 8 A Common-wealth is the swerving or depravation of a Free, or popular State, or the Government of the whole Multitude of the base and poorer Sort, without respect of the other Orders.

And thus as the states of America originated as autonomous entities:

3b. A state of the United States of America, esp. in the official titles of Kentucky, Massachusetts, Pennsylvania, and Virginia.

1779 Pennsylvania Gaz. 24 Mar. 4/3 All the best Whigs in the Commonwealth.

1870 J. R. Lowell Among my Bks. (1873) 1st Ser. 228 The sturdy commonwealths which have sprung from the seed of the Mayflower.

1967 Boston Herald 1 Apr. 3/1 The Commonwealth has been married to the Sales tax a year Saturday. Like many marriages, it hasn't lived altogether up to expectations but it's become essential anyway.

and, historically, the first "Commonwealth"

4.a. English History. The republican government established in England between the execution of Charles I in 1649 and the Restoration in 1660.

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As Wikipedia says:

A commonwealth is a traditional English term for a political community founded for the common good. Historically it has sometimes been synonymous with "republic". The noun "commonwealth", meaning "public welfare general good or advantage", dates from the 15th century.

The British Commonwealth (also known as The Commonwealth of Nations) is the biggest and most important commonwealth, so absent context indicating some other Commonwealth, anyone who says "the Commonwealth" is usually talking about the British Commonwealth.

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For the US states that use the term, it's a bit more specific than the ordinary meaning. Specifically, it means a representative democracy.

For people living in or near those states, we learn the specific meaning in grade school and then immediately forget it, so that it becomes just a meaningless word in the name of the state. There's no practical difference between being a commonwealth vs a state. (Or at least, I learned the meaning in grade school and then immediately forgot it.)

From virginia.gov:

Why is Virginia called a commonwealth? What other states are commonwealths?

According to the Hornbook of Virginia History, 4th ed., page 88:

"A commonwealth is 'a state in which the supreme power is vested in the people.' The term as an official designation was first used in Virginia during the Interregnum (1649-1660), the period between the reigns of Charles I and Charles II during which parliament's Oliver Cromwell as Lord Protector established a republican government known as the Commonwealth of England. Virginia became a royal colony again in 1660, and the word commonwealth was dropped from the governor's full title. When Virginia adopted its first constitution in 1776, the term commonwealth was reintroduced, most likely to emphasize that Virginia's new government was based upon the sovereignty of the people united for the common good, or common weal. The designation commonwealth of Virginia has been used in official records ever since. Three states beside Virginia adopted the appellation commonwealth: Kentucky, Massachusetts, and Pennsylvania."

From mass.gov:

Adams wrote: "There is, however, a peculiar sense in which the words republic, commonwealth, popular state, are used by English and French writers; who mean by them a democracy, or rather a representative democracy; a ‘government in one centre, and that centre the nation;’ that is to say, that centre a single assembly, chosen at stated periods by the people, and invested with the whole sovereignty, the whole legislative, executive, and judicial power, to be exercised in a body, or by committees, as they shall think proper." (Adams, John, and Charles Francis Adams. The Works of John Adams, Second President of the United States: with a Life of Author, Notes and Illustrations. Charles C. Little and James Brown, 1850-56, vol. 5, p. 454)

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  • It should be noted, though, that this can be said about every state within the U.S.; the fact that some states have chosen to call themselves commonwealths while others haven't does not reflect any real difference between them. – jsw29 Nov 26 '20 at 16:16
  • @jsw29 Yeah, "There's no practical difference between being a commonwealth vs a state." – user3067860 Nov 26 '20 at 18:25

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