Wednesday, July 02, 2008



Ezra Pound (1885-1972) coined the word pejorocracy. It occurs in one of the Pisan Cantos, dated 1948 (Canto LXXIX: "in short the snot of pejorocracy"). Charles Olson (1910-1970) also used it in The Kingfisher and The Maximus Poems. I recently saw the word in Guy Davenport, The Geography of the Imagination (San Francisco: North Point Press, 1981), p. 20:
We do not notice that we are ruled by the worst rather than the best of men: Olson took over a word coined by Pound, pejorocracy.
The word doesn't occur in the online version of the Oxford English Dictionary, and I don't know whether it appears in any other dictionary. It's a hybrid formation from Latin pejor (peior = worse, which serves as the comparative degree of the adjective malus = bad) and Greek -κρατία (-kratia = rule, dominion). We see the root pejor also in English pejorative.

It's interesting to compare what is said about hybrids in various editions of Fowler's Modern English Usage. I don't own a copy of the first edition, but I do have the second edition by Ernest Gowers and the third by R.W. Burchfield. The second edition has an entry on "hybrids and malformations," in which hybrids are defined as "words formed from a stem or word belonging to one language by applying to it a suffix or prefix belonging to another," malformations as words "in which all the elements belong indeed to one language, but are so put together as to outrage that language's principles of word-formation." The second edition goes on to say:
At this point it may be well to clear the ground by collecting a small sample of words that may be accused of being misformed in either of the senses explained above—i.e. as made of heterogeneous elements, or as having their homogeneous elements put together in an alien fashion: amoral, automation, backwardation, bi-weekly, bureaucracy, cablegram, climactic, coastal, coloration, dandiacal, flotation, funniment, gullible, impedance, pacifist, speedometer. (Extreme examples, stillborn it may be hoped, are breathalyser and triphibious). An ill-favoured list, of which all readers will condemn some, and some all. It will not be possible here to lay down rules for word-formation, which is a complicated business; but a few remarks on some of the above words may perhaps instil caution, and a conviction that word-making, like other manufactures, should be done by those who know how to do it. Others should neither attempt it for themselves, nor assist in the deplorable activities of amateurs by giving currency to fresh coinages before there has been time to test them.
The third edition is more hospitable to hybrids:
If such words had been submitted to an absolute monarch of etymology, some perhaps would not have been admitted to the language. But our language is not governed by an absolute monarch, nor by an academy, far less by a European Court of Human Rights, but by a stern reception commitee, the users of the language themselves. Homogeneity of language origin comes low in their ranking of priorities; euphony, analogy, an instinctive belief that a word will settle in if there is a need for it and will disappear if there is not—these are the factors that operate when hybrids (like any other new words) are brought into the language. If the coupling of mixed-language elements seems too gross, some standard speakers write (now fax) severe letters to the newspapers. Attitudes are struck. This is all as it should be in a democratic country. But amoral, bureaucracy, and the other mixed-blood formations persist, and the language has suffered only invisible dents.
We can assume that Pound knew exactly what he was doing when he coined the hybrid pejorocracy. Maybe he even intended it as a stick in the eye of language purists.

One thing that puzzles me about pejorocracy is this — why the comparative degree and why not the superlative (pessimocracy, from Latin pessimus = worst)?

There is a more well-established word, not a hybrid, that expresses much the same thing, and that is kakistocracy, first used in English by Thomas Love Peacock in 1829, and preceded by kakistocratical in 1641, according to the Oxford English Dictionary. Aristocracy is rule by the best (ἄριστος, aristos), kakistocracy is rule by the worst (κάκιστος, kakistos), as in the phrase "the Bush kakistocracy." In ancient Greek ἀριστοκρατία occurs, but κακιστοκρατία apparently does not.

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