bu·​reau·​cra·​cy | \ byu̇-ˈrä-krə-sē How to pronounce bureaucracy (audio) , byə-, byər-ˈä- \
plural bureaucracies

Definition of bureaucracy

1a : a body of nonelected government officials
b : an administrative policy-making group
2 : government characterized by specialization of functions, adherence to fixed rules, and a hierarchy of authority
3 : 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.
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Recent Examples on the Web The government argues that rebuilding post-covid Britain requires a better bureaucracy. The Economist, "Bagehot The government takes on the civil service," 4 July 2020 The future of that bureaucracy may depend on whether Kagan can convince the rest of the court. Matt Ford, The New Republic, "Elena Kagan’s Fiery Defense of the Administrative State," 2 July 2020 This has taken cutting through layers of bureaucracy stemming from misguided policies, ingrained industry practices, and outdated conventions that too often tied the hands of patients and clinicians. Peter Pronovost, STAT, "To make progress against Covid-19, processes must serve people, not a ‘labyrinth of bureaucratic rules’," 30 June 2020 Hill-Watkins has never been the type of person who is easily discouraged by bureaucracy and paperwork. Ava Kofman, ProPublica, "How North Carolina Transformed Itself Into the Worst State to Be Unemployed," 30 June 2020 Heather Knight reports that in a city notorious for red tape and bureaucracy, years of complaints about a host of statues depicting slave owners or those who conquered Native Americans have elicited mere shrugs from those in charge. Chronicle Staff, SFChronicle.com, "Coronavirus news from the Bay Area: June 26-27," 28 June 2020 While in 2019 the average length of disappearance was only a handful of days, detentions are lasting longer because courts are closed, movement is restricted and most of Venezuela's bureaucracy is under lockdown. Stefano Pozzebon, Jorge Perez And Audrey Ash, CNN, "Forced disappearances are increasing in Venezuela -- and the coronavirus is making them last longer, rights group says," 26 June 2020 In the end, bureaucracy, divisiveness, turf battles and a lack of public commitment reign, instead of collaboration to get things done. Want some more examples? jsonline.com, "Fannie Lou Hamer's declaration 'I'm sick and tired of being sick and tired' is still a rally cry for Black people in Milwaukee," 25 June 2020 That meant navigating a grinding bureaucracy, fending off lawsuits, rebuffing violent eviction attempts, and even battling drug gangs. Michael Astor, BostonGlobe.com, "Messias Kokama, indigenous leader in the Amazon, dies at 53," 20 June 2020

These example sentences are selected automatically from various online news sources to reflect current usage of the word 'bureaucracy.' Views expressed in the examples do not represent the opinion of Merriam-Webster or its editors. Send us feedback.

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First Known Use of bureaucracy

1815, in the meaning defined at sense 1a

History and Etymology for bureaucracy

borrowed from French bureaucratie, from bureau bureau + -cratie -cracy

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Time Traveler for bureaucracy

Time Traveler

The first known use of bureaucracy was in 1815

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Statistics for bureaucracy

Last Updated

6 Jul 2020

Cite this Entry

“Bureaucracy.” Merriam-Webster.com Dictionary, Merriam-Webster, https://www.merriam-webster.com/dictionary/bureaucracy. Accessed 13 Jul. 2020.

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More Definitions for bureaucracy


How to pronounce bureaucracy (audio)

English Language Learners Definition of bureaucracy

: a large group of people who are involved in running a government but who are not elected
often disapproving : a system of government or business that has many complicated rules and ways of doing things

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