If you hate “bureaucracy”, please fill out this form

The word bureaucracy comes from the French bureaucratie, a spelling that was also used in English for a time but is now obsolete. Einstein described bureaucracy as “the death of all sound work”, and the word’s connotations remain negative today. It has become a byword for excessive administrative red tape and institutional rigidity.

Bureaucracy evokes the high degree of hierarchical organisation to be found in a filing cabinet or storage office, i.e. in a bureau. Its representatives even gave rise to a kind of jargon: bureaucratese. Bureaucracy reminds me of Dilbert, Kafka, Orwell, Brazil, and a job I had lifetimes ago that required every action, item, and action item to be signed and dated — including signatures and dates. On that note, here’s a clip from Brazil:

The familiarity of bureaucracy overshadows its unusual morphology, which drew objections long before the word accrued its current pejorative associations. Added to the French base bureau is the suffix -cracy, from Greek -kratia, from kratos: strength, power, authority. So bureaucracy retained the French -eau- in its middle instead of adopting the usual linking -o- (democracy, technology). This awkward structure attracted fierce criticism from H.W. & F.G. Fowler:

The termination -cracy is now so freely applied that it is too late to complain of this except on the ground of ugliness. It may be pointed out, however, that the very special ugliness of bureaucracy is due to the way its mongrel origin is flaunted in our faces by the telltale syllable -eau-; it is to be hoped that formations similar in this respect may be avoided. (The King’s English)

Henry Watson Fowler, the elder brother, repeated his disdain in A Dictionary of Modern English Usage:

bureaucrat, etc. The formation is so barbarous that all attempt at self-respect in pronunciation may perhaps as well be abandoned. . . . it is better to give the whole thing up, & pretend that -eau- is the formative -o- that ordinarily precedes -crat &c.; all is then plain sailing; it is only to be desired that the spelling could also be changed to burocrat &c.

“Special ugliness”, “mongrel”, “barbarous” — one can almost feel Fowler’s blood pressure rising at these words’ very existence. Malformed they might be, but bureaucrat and bureaucracy are perfectly respectable — unlike the common misspelling beaurocrat, which adopts the middle -o- that Fowler desired, but promotes the -eau- instead of dropping it. I have also come across beauracracy and bureauacracy, and no doubt there are other freakish forms in use. We may need a bureau to organise them.

How do you feel about bureaucracy and its unvenerable variants?

This post also appears on the Visual Thesaurus.

17 Responses to If you hate “bureaucracy”, please fill out this form

  1. You should knoow that you simply cannot ask a question about bureaucracy. Have you requested a form BU097D/3 – application to conduct a survey on public administration?

    Complete in triplicate in English Gaelic, Sheltu AND Yola and submit. You should be able to set up a scoping study in 8-10 weeks

  2. Stan says:

    You’re scarily good at this, Jams. You made that blitz of bureaucratic baloney sound so authoritative and inevitable that I almost went looking for form BU097D/3!

  3. I trust too that you started a crash cours in Yola. Fingalian would have been an acceptable alternative

  4. Yvonne says:

    I like the word bureaucracy even if I don’t like what it means. It’s a bit rich the Fowlers simmering over the King’s English when the French influence is so organic. Still, I admit that techneaucrat wouldn’t look right.

    The word strongly conjures images of Orwell and Kafka for me too and Magritte’s Son of Man painting.

    My warmest personal association is with the ‘bureau’ in bureaucracy. It conjures thoughts of ladies travelling bureaus (early laptops) and bureau-bookcases and a desk my father bought me in my teens which had a fold-out desktop and within, pigeonholes for letters.

  5. Stan says:

    Jams: I’d love to find the time to explore Yola some more — it’s an intriguing pocket of linguistic history. My Fingalian is also non-existent, alas.

    Yvonne: I like the word too; it sounds like something made of blue rocks. The Fowlers indulged their pet peeves, but they had a point. Still, it was too late even by then, and bureaucracy‘s “mongrel” morphology goes virtually unnoticed nowadays. I see what you mean about the Magritte painting. And I like the sound of that desk you had, with its letter-holding pigeonholes (a lovely word).

  6. wisewebwoman says:

    I remember when learning French, 2,000 years ago in Cork, a little ditty:
    “La plume de ma tante est sur le bureau de mon oncle” which has stuck with me rather too successfully.
    At the time, my 12 year old imagination was entranced with the boldness of the aunt, leaving her pen on the important man’s desk.
    And also what a fine romantic word was bureau compared to the harsh germanic sound of ‘desk’.
    I’ve never liked the ‘crat’ suffix, associating more with autocrat, as I am wont to do.
    XO
    WWW

  7. Yvonne says:

    At the risk of diverting your comments section into a discussion of great bureaucrats in film and literature, I watched One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest on DVD last night and thought what a steely bureaucrat Kesey’s Nurse Ratched was. I was also thinking about Richard Yates’ critique of bureaucracy in his depiction of Frank Wheeler’s office life in Revolutionary Road (the book more than the movie).

    My own contact with bureaucracy this week involved presenting a letter of referral to the local dental clinic. It turns out that this letter has to be sent off to the HSE and it may take months for a reply. In the age of e-mail – astonishing! Bureaucracy lives..

  8. Stan says:

    WWW: Thanks for sharing your reminiscence! It is a strangely loaded sentence, inviting us to read into it whatever we choose. When I first encountered it I was sidetracked by an image of the aunt leaving her feathers on the uncle’s desk; I associated plume with plumage even after being taught the word’s French meaning. I was also unable to decide whether the aunt and uncle were blood relatives or married to each other. The ambiguity only added to the oddness of the line.

    Most words ending in -crat have negative connotations, I think, even if one is prepared to accept as unavoidable a certain level of hierarchical rule.

    Yvonne: Whatever the bread and butter of this blog might be, diversions are its dessert, so divert away. One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest is a great book and a fine film, and Nurse Ratched was a most memorable embodiment of bureaucratic inhumanity. Louise Fletcher apparently had a difficult time after the film’s release, so strongly did people associate her with the character.

    I haven’t read or seen Revolutionary Road, but we could do with finding our own road to revolution in Ireland — even just a regulatory revolution! Bureaucracy lives, and thrives here too. Sometimes I wonder if (and how) our history contributes to our uneasy relationship with power in all its provincial guises.

  9. ‘Bureaucracy’ is one of those words that I’ve always had trouble spelling – without realising why. Hopefully an understanding of its odd morphology will help me in the future – or at least make me feel better about my continuing inability to spell the word correctly…

  10. Stan says:

    It’s an unusually tricky word to spell, JD, one whose structure doesn’t come easily or intuitively. When I write it I notice a moment’s hesitation before I can visualise it. There’s an Irish proverb that says “Tús maith, leath na hoibre” (A good start is half the work), and thinking of bureau gets you past halfway!

  11. herself says:

    What an engaging discussion! Thanks for opening it up Stan. Yvonne’s recollection brought me back twenty years and with a young family there wasn’t much disposable cash (plus ca change….etc). However, I purchased a desk which folded in on itself so it looked like a cupboard and didn’t take up much space when not in use. I purchased it because I couldn’t resist the “pigeonholes” (I agree Stan, it’s a lovely word) – space for itsy-bitsy things like envelopes, postcards, old-fashioned tapes and discs, pencils, rubber bands, a veritable treasure trove for the lover of paraphernalia. I loved the experience of sitting there, organising, sorting, re-distributing…

    As for bureaucracy, I cannot give details for reasons of confidentiality but to give you an idea: I invited a local politician to speak at a function I was organising on behalf of a project in Co. Mayo.. After a few days I received an email from a statutory body requesting information about the project. This email included no less than eight previous emails which had been sent to various national agencies requesting information about the project, before someone had the bright idea of going back to source and asking me.

    Joseph Heller (Catch-22) summed it up: “Dear Mrs, Mr, Miss, or Mr and Mrs Daneeka. Words cannot express the deep personal grief I experienced when your husband, son, father or brother was killed. wounded or reported missing in action”.

  12. Stan says:

    Herself: Thanks for the generous contribution! Your old folding desk sounds like a formidable and even inspiring piece of furniture. If it weren’t for email, you would probably need the desk now just to manage the paperwork from quangos and state departments. No one seems to know where responsibility lies any more, nor are they willing to take responsibility for finding out. Heller had it right: treat bureaucracy like a joke, albeit a dark and sometimes bitter one.

  13. Claudia says:

    You have to remember that the French are always(amusingly) naughty! That’s all I wish to say in public…

  14. Claudia says:

    And (as usual) the post and comments are fascinating. Thank you to all.

  15. I absolutely cant stand bureaucracy. It is one of the biggest limiting factors of true progress by talented people, and the best excuse of the lazy. I love Jim Colins statement in his book ‘Good to Great’:

    “…the purpose of bureaucracy is to compensate for incompetence and lack of discipline – a problem that largely goes away if you have the right people in the first place.”

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