Friday, 31 July 2015

Word to the Wise

Neglected gems of the language for taking down the pub and introducing to your mates.


Toe-cock-ruh-see: Noun: rule by the poor, lower class; also, the poor as a class

From Greek: ptochos, poor or beggar, plus kratos, rule, strength, might

Related words: Ptochogony: the begetting or production of beggars (much the same as Conservative Fiscal Policy, then); Ptochology: the scientific study of pauperism, unemployment, etc. 

The ptochos part of ptochocracy means someone who crouches and cowers, usually in abject fear, which the Ancient Greeks then went on to use in reference to beggars – the paupers and deeply destitute – so quite what in the name of Olympus they were doing to their mendicants back in those days to reduce them to doing all that crouching and cowering makes the imagination fairly boggle. Not that we do much better in our modern society, mind you. Mendicant is more your Romanised version of the same thing, being from Latin, menda, a fault or defect, originally a physical one, meaning that their beggars were also crippled into the bargain, which is probably why they were beggars in the first place, the Romans not being especially noted for their caring qualities. Amend and emend are from the same root (basically ex-menda, to un-fault, as it were). 

The main problem with ptochocracy, however, as a form of government, is that would be nigh on an impossibility to achieve. Not that there would be any shortage of the desperately destitute to choose from in this great nation of ours, but simply from the fact that, the moment you took up your seat in the House, you’d instantly be burdened with an onerous salary of £67,060 per annum (set to rise to £74,000 imminently, meaning the salary has doubled since 1996, nice work if you can get it), with forty five days paid holiday and a “severance deal” that adds on a further £12,000 per year, the first £30,000 of which is tax-free; and then there’re all your expenses on top of that, of course, plus the chance to pocket a further £14,876, should they need you to sit on a Select Committee. What with all the free time and long holidays the job involves, those that weren’t entirely workshy loafers would also be expected to put in a shift or two sitting around in various boardrooms doing not much in particular for an hour or so a month – as a Special Advisor, something like that – until it finally gets round to lunchtime and, following a substantial nosebag (as part of the package), you’ll then be bunged more of the traditional brown envelopes to slip discreetly into the old breast pocket, before you and your post-prandial cigar weave unsteadily away to find somewhere to lie down and sleep it all off. And, what with all those vast amounts of cash sloshing about, where would your beggarly credentials be then? In much the same situation as those regents of Prague back in 1618, that’s where – right out the window. Worse still, if your principles then compelled you to stand down because you no longer qualified as a true member of a ptocochracy (and honour wouldn’t allow you to claim that you were Malcolm Rifkind and that you didn’t realise they were filming), Parliamentary regulations would then be obliged to impose on you the final salary pension scheme (paid for by the taxpayer at a rate four times higher than most companies final salary schemes), and you would never be able to return to your impoverished roots again. Instead, you would be reduced to an afterlife of after-dinner speaking and then to penning your memoirs, only to suffer the final and ultimate indignity of seeing them lying around in the bargain bins only a few months down the road. No, we fear that a ptochocracy is not really the government for us …

So, what other options might there be? The Classical Greek philosopher, Plato – he’s the one with the name that means “broad shouldered,” so they reckon, but it’s actually the Ancients’ way of calling him Fatso, though never to his face, seeing he was also something of a wrestler in his time, having grappled in the Isthmian games, winning for himself the rather bizarre prize of a wreath of celery – anyhow, this Aristocles, as he was actually called, thought that there were five different types of regime that we might turn to and, handily enough, he also listed them in order of preference, these being: Aristocracy; Timocracy; Oligarchy; Democracy; and Tyranny. Now, before anyone starts to get bees in their bonnet about how Plato was from a fabulously wealthy and aristocratic family, and that his own wallet was as prodigiously well-padded as he was, meaning he’d be bound to plump for aristocracy as a natural first choice, wouldn’t he, we also need to remember that he was Greek too, so he knew what the words actually meant. Talking of bees, legend has it that when Plato was a mere infant, a gang of just such hymenoptera landed on the young lad’s lips, which is how he ended up with his mellifluous style of discoursing on philosophy (mellifluous meaning “flowing with honey”, by the bye), though whoever thought that one up clearly never had to wade through any of his writings, did they? Hardly flowing with honey, now are they? It seems a lot more plausible that he would’ve simply woken up shrieking, “What’s with all these bees?”

Pick of the political pops for Plato, then, would be Aristocracy. Which seems an oddish sort of choice for a favoured form of government, given that the word instantly conjures up images of decrepit old duffers in tweeds and brogues languishing about on the sumptuous leather upholstery of old-fashioned and superannuated furnishings, gazing wistfully out through the leaded lights of vast mullioned windows and trying desperately to remember why they’d come in here in the first place, all the while referring to the magnificent pile of masonry they inhabit as “the hyse.” No – he’s thinking of the House of Lords, surely? (Mind you, to be fair to them, we thought that “snorting Charlie” meant a disgruntled Prince of Wales, until we discovered Lord Sewel). But let’s not for one minute be tempted to start knocking the aristocracy, because they do one heck of a lot for this country. Especially when it comes to owning it. It seems that thirty six thousand particularly fortunate individuals – just a fraction over a half of one percent of the population – own fifty percent – half – of the country’s rural land, or twenty million of all Britain’s sixty million acres of land, the vast majority of which is in the hands of just twelve thousand deserving swellpurses. Meanwhile, the Duke of Westminster has a property portfolio of some six billion pounds, though he’s actually “worth” (as they erroneously say) some twenty seven billion. Still only third wealthiest Briton, mind. Strange, isn’t it: how we’re only Britons when we’re involved in disasters abroad or when it comes to compiling lists like Who’s Got All the Cash, Then?   

In all fairness, we should mention that many of them have at least “done their bit.” For instance, every Earl of Derby between 1830 and 1948, and every Marquess of Salisbury in the twentieth century (bar one bad apple) sat as a member of the Cabinet, the last departing in 1997. Some have been notable sportsman too, by which we mean proper sport, the sort that involves your keeper or your valet handing you your freshly-reloaded Purdey so that you can blast a few more of those feathery perishers clean out of the skies. Take the Marquess of Ripon, for example, who employed much of his time between 1867 and 1923 in shooting half a million animals various to death, which is not something, we’re sure you’ll concede, that your average bricklayer or even a sprightly alderman can ever lay claim to. Tragically, however, such pursuits are not without their inherent risks, so it hasn’t all been one-way traffic and poor old Sir Edward Grey (as if being Foreign Secretary at the beginning of the First World War wasn’t enough on his shoulders) had one brother eaten by a lion and another killed by a wild buffalo while on safari in Africa. So that’s not so bad, then.

Getting back to the plot, the word aristocracy comes from the Greek, aristos, meaning best, though its original sense was “most fitting,” being a superlative form of ar, to fit or join, as in arm, so aristocracy was technically government or rule by the best. However, such a clever and beardy old thinker as Plato happened to be meant he was quickly able to twist this into “government by the best citizens,” which clearly meant, much as it still does today, “the best-born or most favoured and privileged” amongst us. Which is a pretty far cry from the original basic Greek, Arete, which stood for excellence of any kind, an Arete being a person of purpose and function, one best able to put their faculties – strength, bravery and wit – into use to produce real results, whereas being the possessor of an exceedingly fat wallet is hardly what you’d call a skill or an achievement. Even in Plato’s Republic, he manages to idealise a state in which there’s still a three-tier caste system with, at the top (gold souls), aristocratic philosophers (what, a bit like, say, Plato, you mean?) sitting around doing loads of thinking and coming up with the rules; then come the silver souls, who keep busy making sure that everyone toes the line; and then finally, down at the bottom, your bronze souls, the ones toeing the line and doing all the work. Basically, all he seems to’ve done there is have a quick glance round at what was going on anyway and thought, “that’ll do us, let’s bung that down as the best way to go about things and that’ll be that sorted.” Archetypal Conservatism, you might say. Though, interestingly enough, he does suggest that none of the ruling bods should actually be allowed to own anything, lest that somehow led to them creating policies tainted by personal interests …

Runner-up on the list of preferred political systems, as far as Plato was concerned, and very much your make-do-with in a tight situation option, comes Timocracy. This is something of a ticklish blighter to get to the bottom of, being both vague and complex at the same time, though we can say, without fear of contradiction, that this is not rule by a government formed entirely of people called Tim, though that would be no more absurd an idea as some of the other suggestions that are bandied about (such as government by the idle rich, for instance) and would be a darn sight better than a few that have actually seen the light of day. Nor is it “government by the timid,” which would only result in legislation such as the Prevention of Slightly Scary Things Act (the Ayes to the Right, the Nays to the Left, and the If That’s All Right With You’s still cowering behind the benches). In fact, in a Timocracy, the only qualification a member would ever need in order to get the old bot parked on the historic green leather would be to own a bit of land or some bricks-and-mortar, seeing it’s only property owners that are allowed to participate, so being a rabid old senile bigot permanently three sheets to the wind would by no means rule you out where this system is concerned, and may even provide you with an edge over your rivals at the hustings. Nor is there any requirement to have even the faintest whiff of aptitude or skill, other than the ability to get stuff (usually by inheriting it from your parents) and then hold onto it. Which is quite a lowering of the standards from aristocracy – government by the very best citizens – to allowing all kinds of vulgar sorts in like the nouveau riche and even second-hand car salesmen (or, god forbid, property managers and estate agents) and, before we knew where we were, Parliament would be reduced to a rabble of boorish louts doing nothing but jeer at the party opposite whilst waving sheaves of papers above their heads. None of us would ever want to see that kind of behaviour in the Palaces of the Mighty, now would we? No, that version of Timocracy is a definite non-starter.

Mind you, there’s always the other one, in which the leaders are selected based on the degree of honour they hold relative to other members of their society – that goes back to the root of the word, timé, honour, though the word itself is notoriously slippery when it comes to trying to nail it down, seeing it also implies value or worth, even price at a push, so Plato had no trouble at all in twisting this into meaning government by those with absolute ambitions for power and glory (of which Hitler might be a good example), whilst Aristotle (notice the aristo in his name, which means “best purpose”) plumped for the notion that political power should be dished out in direct ratio to how much of the folding stuff you happened to have. These are two of the most revered thinkers of any age, and yet they come up with balmpot ideas like that. It might be just as sensible to say that we should have a government formed only of whores – that’d be your Pornocracy, of course, porne being Greek for harlot – because they’d be sure to have a bob or two. Nay, nay and thrice nay. So can we have the next contender, please?

Halfway down Plato’s pile we come to Oligarchy. From the Greek, oligos, few. Meaning rule by a small elite, generally picked for having loads of cash or being from the right family. Which is pretty much the same thing again, if a little more choosy about those it lets join. Plutocracy is yet another one that’s the opposite of ptochocracy, this time from ploutos, wealth, and which, as you may have suspected, does have something to do with Pluto, the Greek god of extreme riches but also a Roman term for Hades. Hell. Which is precisely what oligarchs and plutocrats tend to hand out, once they get themselves into office. But, hold your horses there – or, rather, get some impoverished forelock-tugging peasant to do the actual holding of your horses (that you happen to possess through no sweat of your own brow) – isn’t what we’ve got at this very moment actually some form of plutocracy, seeing there are a staggering number of millionaires in the current Cabinet (Jeremy Hunt being one of the most fabulously loaded, possessor of over seventeen million, and yet no more use than a catflap in a wind tunnel, so you can hardly blame him for looking so unbearably supercilious and always smugger than a Cheesy Wotsit the whole time) and a good few others warming their well-plumped backsides on the government benches too (and, yes, plenty more in opposition as well, though, being an Opposition, they’re not actually a “form of government,” so don’t count herein), legend suggesting that some seventy eight percent of all MPs are millionaires masquerading as democrats. That’s about as close to plutocracy as you could get without actually calling a spade a digging implement employed in a gardening capacity …
We now start to scrape Plato’s barrel bottom for him – not a pleasant image at the best of times – as we get to Democracy. From demokratia, popular government (fat chance!), from demos, common people, though originally meaning district. So, government by district, then. Which still just about holds true. It would be reasonable to argue that we’ve given democracy a fair old innings and look where it’s got us: at the last election, the party that increased its vote by a miniscule 0.8% ends up sweeping into a majority (albeit a slender one, which partly compensates for all the gross lardbuckets they’ve got mouldering away on their benches), whilst the party that increased its vote by twice as much suffers a crushing defeat, and the one that came out of nowhere (think of them what you might) to poll four million votes gets a single miserable seat. Something has gone spectacularly wrong somewhere. And see what we’ve ended up with running the country: a posh bloke who’s never known what it’s like to go without (except for that time he left his daughter in the pub, that is), who looks like a fat hamster that’s got its entire winter store salted away in its cheek pouches, and a man who possesses all the sincerity of a plastic Monkhouse. With, for sidekick, another long streak of posh that should be hung up on the bird table for the sparrows to peck but is actually Chancellor and still the only man ever to be spontaneously booed by an entire Olympic stadium. Not to be outdone, our American cousins are now contemplating the prospect of making Donald Trump the most powerful person in the world …

Which brings us nicely to Kakistocracy. No prizes for guessing. Yes, it’s exactly what it sounds like: government by the worst. Or by the stupid. Or by those least qualified to rule. Again, thought up by the good old Greeks, from kakos, bad or evil, though with more than a suggestion of the bowel movement about it that you so rightly suspected. It has been suggested that every government which has ever existed has been a prime example of a kakistocracy. Probably by the same bloke that said that Guy Fawkes was the only man to ever get into Parliament with the right idea …

[All views expressed herein are intended only as humour and belong solely to the author]


Beggars (“The Cripples”): Pieter Brueghel the Elder (1526/1530–1569) [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons
Defenestration of Prague: Matthäus Merian the Elder [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons
Bees: Bksimonb at the English language Wikipedia [GFDL ( or CC-BY-SA-3.0 (], from Wikimedia Commons
Duke of Westminster in 1998: By Allan Warren (Own work) [CC BY-SA 3.0 ( or GFDL (], via Wikimedia Commons
Sir Edward Grey: Leslie Ward [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons
Plato & Aristotle: Raphael [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

The Outcast: Richard Redgrave [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons
Jeremy Hunt: By Culture, Media and Sport Office [OGL (], via Wikimedia Commons
Donald Trump: By Michael Vadon [CC BY-SA 2.0 (], via Wikimedia Commons

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