This word makes me think of a famous book that doesn’t exist: The Theory and Practice of Oligarchical Collectivism. It’s the seditious book in George Orwell’s 1984. I think it was in that title that I first encountered – well, not the exact word oligarchy, but a mark of its presence.

It’s not really a pretty word, is it, oligarchy? It has resonances of ugly and gawky and gherkin (though it does have a faint echo of olive garden). It makes me think of hold the car key, which is something that, in a family, only parents can do – the local oligarchy. (Well, big brother might get to hold the car key too.) The oli is oily, the lig might bring to mind ligament (and what ties bind a family or state together?), and the garch – well, I find it rather unlikeable, reminiscent of a harsh bird cry or a sound someone makes from deep within the throat just before expectorating.

On the other hand, the archy may seem more open and certainly is more familiar: anarchy, monarchy, and such like. It’s from the Greek root ἀρχός arkhos “ruler”. And the olig? From Greek ὀλίγος oligos, “small, little, few”. So oligarchy means “rule by a small group”.

Unsurprisingly, this is not a new word. It’s been in English at least since the 1500s, but was in Greek back in classical times. Rule by tight little in-groups – families, cabals, and so on – has occurred many times throughout history. Indeed, even in modern democracies, a small group may come to have power and to wield it largely unchecked for quite some time, helping their friends and doing things just the way they want with little or no regard for the main mass of the populace. And how rarely are they held to account – after years of depredations, they get re-elected yet again. And the announcement of the election poll results might as well be an “olly olly oxenfree” – or I should say “oligarchy oxenfree”: “Hey, power people, you made it without being caught out. You get to hold the car keys once again.”

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