After last week’s Word Nerd entry, I was inspired to look into the origin of the words we use to describe our form of government here in the good ole U.S. of A.
First, we call ourselves a “democracy.”
The “demo” part comes from the Greek demos, meaning “the people” (or “the common people”). It comes from the Indo-European root da, which has to with cutting, or dividing. I’m not sure how to think about that, except that democracy in Greek was done in city-states, or divisions of society. Only in America did we try to apply it to an entire nation.
[Bonus—The English word “demon” comes from the same root. No wonder some of the founders were untrusting of allowing the common man the vote. I’d never put those two words together before. Thank God for Jefferson, who did trust the common man with the vote…though not the common woman…but that’s a different story.]
The “cracy” part of democracy comes from the Greek root kratein/kratos, “rule/strength”, and we’ve turned into a combining form that means “government by” or “rule by.” We get our word “hard” from the same root, interestingly enough.
So: Democracy: rule of the common people, government by the people.
In his 1828 dictionary, Noah Webster gave this meaning for democracy: “Government by the people; a form of government, in which the supreme power is lodged in the hands of the people collectively, or in which the people exercise the powers of legislation. Such was the government of Athens.”
In 1969, The American Heritage Dictionary of the English Language said this about democracy: “Government by the people, exercised either directly or through elected representatives…a social condition of equality and respect for the individual within the community.”
In 2006, Webster’s New World College Dictionary gave this meaning: “Government in which the people hold the ruling power either directly or through elected representatives, rule by the ruled…majority rule…the principle of equality of rights, opportunity, and treatment, or the practice of this principle.”
Notice how we’ve added “or through elected representatives” to the definition, along with giving the word sociological meanings about equality? Maybe Webster was just trying to keep things simple, but it’s an interesting notation, anyway.
Next, we fashion ourselves a “republic.”
This word comes from the Latin, res, “thing/affair,” and publica, “public.” I know a touch of Latin, so I’m going to editorialize here, and say publica is in the genitive, so “republic” means literally, “the thing is for the public.” The affairs of America are put before the public by way of our elected representatives.
[Of course, it’s not a shock that publica means “public”; it’s just that we get so many of our English words from Latin.
But that’s another Word Nerd topic for another Word Nerd day.]
Webster’s 1828 Dictionary says “republic” means: “A commonwealth; a state in which the exercise of the sovereign power is lodged in representatives elected by the people. In modern usage, it differs from a democracy or democratic state, in which the people exercise the powers of sovereignty in person. Yet the democracies of Greece are often called republics.”
In 1969, American Heritage defines it this way: “Any political order that is not a monarchy…a constitutional form of government, especially a democratic one…”
In 2006, Webster’s New World says this: “a state or nation in which the supreme power rests in all the citizens entitled to vote (the electorate) and is exercised by representatives elected, directly or indirectly, by them and responsible to them…” (this is only one part of the first definition but, their 3rd definition is so interesting, I want to mention it: “a state or nation with a president as its titular head.”)
Any form of government that is not a monarchy? Any nation who calls her leader “president”? That’s like defining a Christian as “not a Jew.” Assuming that the dictionary makers only note the ways we are using the words, America is very confused about our form of government.
Let’s go back to basics by going back to the words themselves. Democracy worked in only limited parts of Greece because it’s literally rule of the people. You get too many people, you have too many rulers, and it just doesn’t work—it never would have worked in its pure form in America. That’s why our founders wisely kept America’s affairs in front of the public by having us elect representatives who are responsible, and hopefully responsive, to us.
Looks like Noah Webster got it the most right back in 1828.
WORD NERD CHALLENGE: How many other words from “demos” can you list? Send me your list via the “Please comment” button. Can’t wait!
By the way, if you’re interested in Noah Webster’s dictionary, really America’s first dictionary, check out http://1828.mshaffer.com/d/search/word,republic free online.