Friday, January 4, 2013

Ochlocracy and Other Gems

I got here because, the other day, Brigitte used Pöbel, a German word that refers to the uncultured masses (to put it mildly). We often use German words in our conversation when they have a sharper, more appropriate meaning than the English equivalent. Then, as is her wont, she wondered where that word might be rooted. We both assumed that its roots are the same as that of people, thus by way of French, peuple, where its first meaning is “people, nation” but les gens du peuple has that German flavor, meaning “the lower classes” or “the crowd.” We were right. But the French comes from the Latin populus, which, it turns out, comes from the Etruscan.

In seeking the German etymology of Pöbel, I encountered a, for me, brand new gem, ochlocracy. You might say that it is the rule of the Pöbel. Sure enough okhlos in Greek means “mob, populace,” and the Greek itself carries the sense of a mass in motion. This sense is captured in the derogatory Latin phrase mobile vulgus, literally “moving mass” or “moving people,” usually rendered as “the fickle crowd.”  Now, amusingly, for me—who’d always assumed that “mob” was a stalwart Old English word—it turns out that mobile vulgus is the root of “mob,” only the first three letters of the Latin phrase having been retained—and the whole meaning. And when we capitalize it as in The Mob, or talk about mob-rule, we are talking about ochlocracy.

Is it in our future? Well, it’s making inroads; it is moving. One indicator of our current situation is that we use the phrase pop culture with positive connotations (unless we are a ways past fifty). The family lineage of pop is very similar to peuple in French and okhlos in Greek. But the whole phrase is still in transition. It is something we cultivate even if, it seems, it is aiming at -kratia instead, the Greek modifier to signify “rule.” And sometimes, turning on the TV, even news shows, popocracy already seems to be comfortably in the saddle.


  1. Dear Mr. Darnay, I appreciate your comments on the German word, "Pobel". When my siblings and I were young, our Dad called us "poobers". His grandmother was from Germany and I wonder if that word is a take off from pobel. If that's the case, I'm sure he meant the word endearingly as he was a great dad and wouldn't want to hurt our feelings. I speak Portuguese and the words
    "meu bichinho",(my little insect) is a term of
    endearment that spouses call each other. I'm sure there are many such terms in other languages. --reader from AZ.

    1. I rather think that your dad was echoing his mother, who probably referred to "puppen." That word has a sound close to "poobers" and means "dolls," as in play-dolls, an endearing diminuative commonly used for children.


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