bu·​reau·​cra·​cy byu̇-ˈrä-krə-sē How to pronounce bureaucracy (audio)
plural bureaucracies
: a body of nonelected government officials
: an administrative policymaking group
: government characterized by specialization of functions, adherence to fixed rules, and a hierarchy of authority
: a system of administration marked by officialism, red tape, and proliferation

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The Roots of Bureaucracy

Bureaucracy was borrowed from the French bureaucratie, which itself was formed by combining bureau (“desk”) and -cratie (a suffix denoting a kind of government). The English word can refer to an entire body of unelected government officials or to the problematic system (often filled with red tape) that may result from administration by bureaucrats. From its earliest appearances, bureaucracy has carried a distinctly negative connotation. An 1815 London Times article, for example, declares: “. . . it is in this bureaucracy, Gentlemen, that you will find the invisible and mischievous power which thwarts the most noble views, and prevents or weakens the effect of all the salutary reforms which France is incessantly calling for.”

Examples of bureaucracy in a Sentence

As Europe slipped deeper into the war, the uranium panel twiddled its thumbs. It was so mired in bureaucracy that by the spring of 1940, it had managed to approve only the $6,000 in research funds earmarked for Fermi and Szilard, so they could purchase uranium and graphite for their fission experiments. Jennet Conant, Tuxedo Park, 2002
In recent books and articles a small but outspoken chorus of former CIA case officers has portrayed the once proudly swashbuckling agency as a timid, politically correct bureaucracy, overly concerned with being held to account by the press and Capitol Hill. Evan Thomas, Newsweek, 29 Apr. 2002
Proving that even lumbering federal bureaucracies can move quickly when they have to, the Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) last week took advantage of Congress' extended holiday break to introduce its long-awaited—and, perhaps, long-dreaded—ergonomic standards. Editor & Publisher, 27 Nov. 1999
She was fed up with all the red tape and bureaucracy. Both candidates pledge to simplify the state's bloated bureaucracy.
Recent Examples on the Web Eventually, Cash grew discouraged by setbacks in his efforts to help prisoners, and stepped away from the cause, but Kramer never wavered, even when facing complex bureaucracy and resistance from authorities. Steve Appleford, Rolling Stone, 17 Feb. 2024 But layers of middle management, ridiculous bureaucracy and HR distractions take you away from serving their needs. Jodie Cook, Forbes, 14 Feb. 2024 David Wolfson, a lawyer with the commercial law firm One Essex Court, told a story in which the villain was the Nigerian bureaucracy. Jesse Barron, New York Times, 9 Feb. 2024 These projects are pitched with a sense of grandiosity and grievance: The twisted bureaucracy of democratic governance is constraining humanity. Cheri Lucas Rowlands, Longreads, 6 Feb. 2024 Every organization, from the small mom-and-pop store to the most massive bureaucracy, faces this same chore. Baltimore Sun Editorial Board, Baltimore Sun, 24 Jan. 2024 Sweeping and abrupt reforms put in place by bureaucracies that are immediate or near-term do not garner support from the majority of American working-class citizens, because there are very valid affordability, accessibility and reliability issues. Gillian Brassil, Sacramento Bee, 5 Feb. 2024 Migrant families living in tents at the Floyd Bennett Field shelter have received essentials like a baby stroller through a WhatsApp group and gotten help navigating some indecipherable corner of the city bureaucracy. Jay Root Victor J. Blue, New York Times, 4 Feb. 2024 The new controls mark the first time EU food producers must face the hassle of post-Brexit border bureaucracy since Britain exited the bloc’s vast internal market and customs union in January 2021. Krystal Hur, CNN, 1 Feb. 2024 See More

These examples are programmatically compiled from various online sources to illustrate current usage of the word 'bureaucracy.' 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 French bureaucratie, from bureau bureau + -cratie -cracy

First Known Use

1815, in the meaning defined at sense 1a

Time Traveler
The first known use of bureaucracy was in 1815

Dictionary Entries Near bureaucracy

Cite this Entry

“Bureaucracy.” Merriam-Webster.com Dictionary, Merriam-Webster, https://www.merriam-webster.com/dictionary/bureaucracy. Accessed 22 Feb. 2024.

Kids Definition


bu·​reau·​cra·​cy byu̇-ˈräk-rə-sē How to pronounce bureaucracy (audio)
plural bureaucracies
: a body of government officials
: a system of managing an organization (as a government or business) by strictly following a fixed routine or procedure that often results in delay

More from Merriam-Webster on bureaucracy

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