Language Corner

Kleptomaniacs and kleptocrats

January 4, 2017
Credit: AP

Thievery has been with us forever, as has government corruption. But a name for thieves who use governments as their means of theft have been with us only since 1968.

It was then, the Oxford English Dictionary says, that the first use of “kleptocrat” appeared, defined as “A thief in a position of political power; a greedy or corrupt politician.”

That usage was referring to an African regime. Since then, “kleptocrats” have been accused of  using their offices for personal gain in the Congo, Yugoslavia, Haiti, Ukraine, the Philippines (twice), Nicaragua, Nigeria….There’s enough going on that there’s a Kleptocracy Initiative run by the conservative Hudson Institute and a six-year-old Kleptocracy Asset Recovery Initiative in the US Department of Justice that has sought to recover funds stolen from Malaysia, Chad, and Equatorial Guinea, to name a few.

There’s a whole lot of “kleptomania” going on. That term, the OED says, dates to 1830. Whether all “kleptocrats” are also” kleptomaniacs” could be debatable, since “kleptomania” is defined as an “irresistible tendency to theft, actuating persons who are not tempted to it by necessitous circumstances, supposed by some to be a form of insanity.” One could argue that someone in a position of governmental authority should be able to resist that tendency, especially if that person is already quite wealthy, as is often the case.

A “kleptocrat” is enriched by a “kleptocracy,” which traces to 1819 and the OED defines as: “A ruling body or order of thieves. Also, government by thieves; a nation ruled by this kind of government.”

Why bring this up now? Because the appearances of “kleptocracy” and “kleptocrat” have been exploding in news reports. Between 1980 and 2012, the words “kleptocracy” and “kleptocrat” appeared fewer than 1,000 times in Nexis. In just the past three months, one or the other has appeared more than 1,000 times.

Sign up for CJR's daily email


But instead of referring to Third World or emerging nations, traditionally the home of corrupt politicians looting the government and the people, many of the newer references are to Russia or (gasp!) the United States. One Guardian columnist has tarred both with the same brush: Russia, the columnist says, “is a highly centralized kleptocracy, and no one in power has clean hands.” Of the United States, he writes, “Our antiquated electoral system has yielded a president-elect who is unqualified and temperamentally unstable, and who is openly building a kleptocratic state closely modeled on Putin’s, to whom he arguably owes his victory.”

As explained in a recent New York Times piece, the election of Donald Trump could complicate the initiatives to stop “kleptocracy” in other countries, quoting one nonprofit leader as saying “it’s a perfect scenario for kleptocrats in Africa to point to someone in the White House. They will compare themselves to Donald Trump.”

Whether Trump would be considered a “kleptocrat” if he did not divest himself of his businesses must be left to other pundits; we write about language, not politics.

The root of all of these is a Greek word transliterated as “klepto,” for thief or steal. Its first appearance in English, in 1743, according to the OED, was the word “kleptistic,” “Related to or consisting in stealing.” “Kleptic” showed up in 1865, and even the slang “klepto,” from 1958, predates “kleptocrats.”

“Kleptocrat” and “kleptocracy” have been stealing more frequently into news reports, but both words should be used with caution when referring to nations or leaders who are not facing more formal accusations. Opinion columns can get away with using them, but “innocent until proven guilty” applies to thieves big and small.

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.