Language Corner

Absolute power by any other name

March 5, 2020

As a person in strong control of your government—sole control, perhaps—which title would you prefer? Autocrat? Despot? Dictator? Tyrant?

Choose wisely. They all refer to absolute authority and have negative connotations, though not all started that way. But theyre not exactly the same.

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An autocrat” runs an “autocracy,” in which a single person or political party is in complete authority. To quote the Encyclopaedia Britannica, “Autocracy is characterized by the concentration of power in a single centre, be it an individual dictator or a group of power holders such as a committee or a party leadership. This centre relies on force to suppress opposition and to limit social developments that might eventuate in opposition. The power of the centre is not subject to effective controls or limited by genuine sanctions: it is absolute power.”

“Autocrat” was the original name of the Russian tsars, the form of dominance established in the mid-15th century by Ivan the Great, who was merely Ivan III until he drove out the Mongols and drew up a new legal system that became the Russian state and established tight control on government. Catherine the Great was the first to call herself an “autocrat,” in 1762, in her manifestoes that began: “We Catherine II. by the Grace of God, Empress and Autocrat of all the Russias,” the Oxford English Dictionary says. And yes, “auto” is from the Greek for “self, one’s own, by oneself, independently,” though the “crat” comes from Russian.

In Greek, a “despot” referred to the lord and master of a (slave-owning) household, deities, and, the OED says, “to the absolute ruler of a non-free people,” those who were enslaved or otherwise held captive. The pharaohs and Byzantine emperors were also called “despots,” though the people who were not enslaved might not have been subject to the same cruelty. Entering English in 1562, the OED says, “despot” was a generic title for anyone in authority. But by the early 18th century, it had switched usage to mean “An absolute ruler of a country; hence, by extension, any ruler who governs absolutely or tyrannically; any person who exercises tyrannical authority; a tyrant, an oppressor.” According to the OED, “The modern use, which is usually hostile, … came into prominence at the period of the French Revolution,” used by the revolutionaries to describe the government of Louis XVI.

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A “dictator,” by contrast, was originally merely someone who gave orders. At time of crisis during the Roman Empire, a “dictator” was someone like a chief magistrate, appointed and given absolute power, but only for the duration of the emergency. Later, a “dictator” was the head of state, again without any connotation of an iron hand. As the OED says: “Equivalents of dictator in other languages were sometimes used during the 19th cent. and later in the formal titles of heads of state, and the English word has been used to render these; more generally, however, the word suggests oppressive or totalitarian rule, and hence is rarely used in a neutral sense.” Unlike an “autocracy,” where power is concentrated in a person or party, in a “dictatorship,” the power is concentrated in one person, or a tiny group of people.

“Tyrant” has had several embodiments in English as well. First showing up in the late 13th century, the OED says, a “tyrant” was “A king or ruler who exercises his power in an oppressive, unjust, or cruel manner; a despot.” But from mid-14th century, it also carried the now obsolete but neutral meaning “A ruler, governor, prince.” And coexisting with those was “One who seizes upon the sovereign power in a state without legal right; an absolute ruler; a usurper.” And yes, it shares an etymology with the Tyrannosaurus rex.

A “tyrant” differs from the other absolute rulers, who come to power somewhat legitimately and then consolidate that power to absolutism.

All those titles are used in nongovernmental contexts to describe people whose behavior we don’t like. Notice the crossover in many of those definitions, using one term to refer to another. Even as synonyms, though, they carry slightly different connotations.

For those of you expecting a zinger tying all of these titles to anyone in power today, let us quote the Merriam-Webster note in its definition of “tyrant”: “We cannot offer judgment on whether or not any specific individual is or is not a tyrant.” Or an autocrat, a dictator, or a despot. After all, no one carries any of those titles; it is the subjects who add the labels, not the objects.

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Merrill Perlman managed copy desks across the newsroom at the New York Times, where she worked for twenty-five years. Follow her on Twitter at @meperl.