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Reconsidering the Etymology of Democracy

The traditional etymology for democracy suggests that it derives from two Greek words: demos, meaning "the common people", and kratos, meaning "rule". While "rule of the common people" appears to describe what we today understand the word democracy refers to, that translation actually appears to mask or confuse much of the history and meaning related to the word.

For example, the word demos did not originally refer to "common people"; rather the word demos referred to districts within Attica, the region that constituted the city-state of Athens. Each citizen of Attica, regardless of where he eventually resided (foreigners, women and slaves were all excluded from citizenship), was known by his demos. To participate in political affairs, each citizen had to be registered as a member of a demos. Thus the word demos eventually came to be associated with people from different regions of Attica and the political process within the Athenian city-state that we know today as democracy. The original, and arguably correct, meaning of demos also survives in the English words demographics (which refers not to the measurement of human characteristics in general but rather to the measurement of characteristics related to a group of people living within the same region), endemic (which refers to characteristics that are unique to a particular region), pandemic (which refers to all regions and the people therein) and academy.

The ancient Greeks, however, had other words besides demos that either meant or related to the idea of "common people". One such word, idiotes, meant "unskilled person" but eventually came to be a derogatory reference to people who did not participate in public life; it is from idiotes that we get the English word idiot.

Another ancient Greek word meaning "common people", "people of the nation" or "people assembled" was laos. The word laos in fact is quite old, dating back to the time of Homer, and was included in names like Menelaus, Nikholaos (Greek for Nicholas) and Laertes. It is from laos that we get the words layman and laity. The word laos also continues in Modern Greek today to mean "people of the same community".

Given the availability of those and other Greek words (such as kosmos and anthropoi) that referred to "people of a nation", "ordinary people" or, even better, "of the citizens" (polite) or "of the assembly" (ekklesia), it appears somewhat obvious why the word demos was chosen over such words. The Athenian democracy was not originally envisioned as a government of the people, as we see it today; rather, it was originally envisioned by Cleisthenes and others as a government representing all of the districts.

There is also good reason to believe that a problem also exists with regard to the assumption that -cracy derived from kratos, translating as "strength" or "rule". The Greek word kratos, after all, actually appears to be more closely associated with acts of strength, courage and/or violence than with governance. So the word kratos appears to potentially carry the rather negative connotation of "governance by force". The democracy of the Athenian city-state, however, was a means of arriving at solutions to problems through discussion, compromise and, to the greatest degree possible, consensus. The political process called democracy was inherently therefore quite different from the rule of tyrants and leaders (archos), who impressed their will upon the people through threats and violence. So it seems somewhat unlikely that, apart from democracy's critics, the citizens of Athens would have generally viewed their democracy as a "tyranny of and by the uneducated masses".

The word democracy appeared at a time when another word like it was also commonly being used to describe another form of government: aristocracy. The word aristocracy is commonly believed to have derived from the word aristokratos, meaning "leading force". The word aristokratos, in fact, referred specifically to the hoplites who served in the front ranks of a phalanx. The soldiers in the front two ranks of a phalanx were regarded to be the best and bravest soldiers. They were, after all, the ones who led the attack on the enemy. They were also the ones who endured the brunt of the enemy's counter attacks. Thus the aristokratos were the heroes of any battle that ended in victory.

While it is certainly plausible that the Greek word aristokratos gradually evolved into the word aristocracy (Greek aristokratia) as the traditional etymologies suggest, there is also strong linguistic evidence that suggests both aristocracy and democracy (Greek demokratia) evolved from a different Greek word: krisi, which means "judgment". If so, aristo krisi would translate not as "the rule of the best" but rather as "the judgment of the elite". Similarly demo krisi would translate not as "the rule of the people" but rather as "the judgment of the towns".

It should be noted that the Sanskrit word kratu, which the Greek word kratos is said to derive from, is sometimes translated as "strength", "power" and, perhaps mistakenly, "sacrifice".1 But kratu more often appears to mean "wisdom", "judgment" or "will". The "wisdom" meaning of kratu was reflected in Avestan xratu, Old Armenian xrat and Modern Persian xerad. The same meaning is reflected in Greek krites ("judge"), Greek krisi ("judgment") and perhaps even Hebrew hikhria ("decide/settle"). And it is in fact from Greek krisi and kritikos (meaning "able to judge") that we get the English words crisis, critical and hypocrisy. Clearly the time when the people would most likely be gathered to make a critical decision was at a time of crisis, so there is also ample cognitive basis for believing that those three words were potentially etymologically related even before Solon, Cleisthenes and Ephialtes helped to establish the government scholars today typically regard to be the first authentic democracy.2

Unfortunately, as far as I am aware, no proof can be offered as to what the true origin of the word democracy is. Thus, ironically, it actually comes down to whether you and others like you agree with the traditional view or whether you and they agree with what is presented herein. In the end, I hope that critical thinking and good judgment will win the day, and that a more honest answer to the question will eventually be agreed upon.

Additional Comments

On the original meaning of kratos:

The name Socrates appears likely to have derived from Sanskrit su kratu, meaning "great wisdom". Scholars traditionally assert that his name, and others like it, derived from Greek kratos, meaning "force". However, many Greek philosophers were named Crates, and many names of Greek philosophers ended with crates. One such name was Xenocrates, which translates as either "foreign force" or "foreign wisdom", depending on which translation for crates one accepts.

On the original meaning of demos:

In ancient times, the city of Athens was surrounded by a wall, and within the wall were 10 gates. The gates controlled passage into and out of the city by those traveling along key roads originating from different regions of Attica. Attica (which was the city-state for which the city of Athens was the capital) was, in fact, divided into 10 regions that corresponded to 10 tribes. These regions were each divided into three parts called trittyes, and each trittys was divided further into separate areas or districts called demos. It appears likely that the word demos originally referred to the gates that were used by citizens to leave the city to return to their particular region of Attica. Note that the Semitic equivalent of the Latin letter d is called daleth, which is typically translated as "door".3

1 Interestingly, there are two Olin translations possible for the word kratos. The first translation of kratos treats ra as a reference to military force. The second translation for kratos treats rat as a reference to discussion.
2 The substituion of i for a or vice versa may appear trivial; however, in relation to Olin, there is a substantial change in meaning. Specifically ra is frequently understood to be a reference to military force while ri can be seen to translate as "movement of the eye", suggesting that it refers to observation or inspection.
3 In Greek there are several words for “gate”: pule, thura and porta. Most of us can easily recognize porta as being related to English port, meaning “gateway” or “entry way”. Some may not however recognize that thura very likely was the predecessor of Old English thurh, which evolved into the English words through and thoroughfare. One also might not realize that the digraph th was often substituted for the letter d, so that Greek thura, as dura, can also be seen to be the origin of English door (as well as German Tor, Persian dar, etc).