an·​ar·​chy ˈa-nər-kē How to pronounce anarchy (audio) -ˌnär- How to pronounce anarchy (audio)
: absence of government
: a state of lawlessness or political disorder due to the absence of governmental authority
the city's descent into anarchy
: a utopian society of individuals who enjoy complete freedom without government
: absence or denial of any authority or established order
anarchy prevailed in the war zone
: absence of order : disorder
not manicured plots but a wild anarchy of natureIsrael Shenker

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The Multiple Meanings of Anarchy

Anarchy exemplifies how words may have similar yet distinctive meanings. The earliest recorded use of the word, from the early 16th century, meant simply “absence of government,” albeit with the implication of civil disorder. A similar but ameliorated meaning began to be employed in the 19th century in reference to a Utopian society that had no government. The establishment of these two senses of anarchy did not stop the word from being applied outside the realm of government with the broadened meaning ”a state of confusion or disorder.” The existence of definitions that are in semantic conflict does not imply that one (or more) of them is wrong; it simply shows that multisense words like anarchy mean different things in different contexts. Another example of a sense-shifting word relating to government is aristocracy. When first used in English, this word carried the sole meaning “government by the best individuals.” It may still be used in such a fashion, but more commonly, it is encountered in the extended sense “the aggregate of those believed to be superior.”

Examples of anarchy in a Sentence

Its immigration policies in the last five years have become the envy of those in the West who see in all but the most restrictive laws the specter of terrorism and social anarchy. Caroline Moorehead, New York Review of Books, 16 Nov. 2006
Fueled by booze and the euphoria of having seen their school win a share of its first … title in 36 years, a mob of Beavers fans hurled itself at the cops, breaching both chains and creating anarchy. Austin Murphy, Sports Illustrated, 27 Nov. 2000
But by the early 1800s, the mines began to play out, and the colonists challenged the Spanish throne for independence. The Silver Cities survived not only the bloody revolution of 1821 but also the ensuing century of anarchy and bloodshed. David Baird, Continental, February 1999
The anarchy of the Internet may be daunting for the neophyte, but it differs little from the bibliographical chaos that is the result of five and a half centuries of the printing press. Fred Lerner, The Story of Libraries, (1945) 1998
Anarchy reigned in the empire's remote provinces. When the teacher was absent, there was anarchy in the classroom. See More
Recent Examples on the Web The man was wearing a Descendents T-shirt, the teenager a NOFX one; Mom was in the tattoo parlor upstairs, getting her leg inked with an image of a Doc Marten and an anarchy symbol. Brett Martin, New York Times, 28 Nov. 2023 After the massacres came anarchy and then rule by Darfur’s new Janjaweed overlords, later formalized as the RSF, a paramilitary arm of the government. Alex De Waal, Foreign Affairs, 18 Sep. 2023 His business operated freely, because, in part, Libya fell into a state of anarchy after the 2011 revolution. Ed Caesar, The New Yorker, 6 Nov. 2023 Perhaps most consequentially, the United States and the Soviet Union concluded that the spread of nuclear weapons to other states posed a threat to both of them and ultimately risked nuclear anarchy. Henry A. Kissinger, Foreign Affairs, 13 Oct. 2023 For some years Paulette Jiles has labored over a fertile stretch of history, setting her novels in the American West amid the anarchy of Reconstruction. Sam Sacks, WSJ, 22 Sep. 2023 The climate chaos was now full-tilt climate anarchy. WIRED, 28 Sep. 2023 Edelstein has condensed the three plays into two and is focusing on the characters’ quest to achieve power at any cost, and how that single-minded purpose can lead to chaos, violence and anarchy. Pam Kragen, San Diego Union-Tribune, 7 Sep. 2023 That just won’t do and the friction escalates as a little light anarchy and a gnarly pep rally brawl chart an enjoyably demented path to an unhinged gridiron finale. Brian Truitt, USA TODAY, 1 Sep. 2023 See More

These examples are programmatically compiled from various online sources to illustrate current usage of the word 'anarchy.' Any opinions expressed in the examples do not represent those of Merriam-Webster or its editors. Send us feedback about these examples.

Word History


borrowed from Medieval Latin anarchia, borrowed from Greek anarchía "lack of a leader, lawlessness," from ánarchos "without a head or chief, leaderless" (from an- an- + -archos, derivative of archós "leader, chief") + -ia -y entry 2 — more at -arch entry 1

First Known Use

1539, in the meaning defined at sense 1a

Time Traveler
The first known use of anarchy was in 1539

Dictionary Entries Near anarchy

Cite this Entry

“Anarchy.” Dictionary, Merriam-Webster, Accessed 4 Dec. 2023.

Kids Definition


an·​ar·​chy ˈan-ər-kē How to pronounce anarchy (audio) -ˌär- How to pronounce anarchy (audio)
: the condition of a country where there is no government
: a state of lawlessness, confusion, or disorder

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