noun bu·reau·cra·cy \byu̇-ˈrä-krə-sē, byə-, byər-ˈä-\

Definition of bureaucracy



  1. 1a :  a body of nonelective government officialsb :  an administrative policy-making group

  2. 2 :  government characterized by specialization of functions, adherence to fixed rules, and a hierarchy of authority

  3. 3 :  a system of administration marked by officialism, red tape, and proliferation

Examples of bureaucracy in a sentence

  1. 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

  2. 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

  3. 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

  4. She was fed up with all the red tape and bureaucracy.

  5. Both candidates pledge to simplify the state's bloated bureaucracy.

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.”

Origin and Etymology of bureaucracy

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

First Known Use: 1815

BUREAUCRACY Defined for English Language Learners


noun bu·reau·cra·cy \byu̇-ˈrä-krə-sē, byə-, byər-ˈä-\

Definition of bureaucracy for English Language Learners

  • : a large group of people who are involved in running a government but who are not elected

  • : a system of government or business that has many complicated rules and ways of doing things

Seen and Heard

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capable of being understood in two ways

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