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 In this system, both the sick and the healthy spend endless unproductive hours navigating the tortuous and often cruel maze of insurance bureaucracy. Foreign Affairs, 24 Oct. 2023 Still, both countries have a lot of bureaucracy, history and skepticism to overcome. Damien Cave, New York Times, 17 Oct. 2023 The subsequent weeks and months became a haze of international bureaucracy, exasperating medical tests and sobering soul-searching as the stroke resulted in an aggressive form of dementia and Bahr became a globe-trotting caregiver. Thomas Floyd, Washington Post, 8 Nov. 2023 Another focus of his grievances is the federal bureaucracy writ large, which Trump and his allies blame for his various policy failures during his first term. Matt Ford, The New Republic, 2 Nov. 2023 Instead of exploiting Gia’s trauma for cheap emotional impact, Leaf explores the psychic toll of this bureaucracy. Lovia Gyarkye, The Hollywood Reporter, 1 Nov. 2023 After several years of bureaucracy, it was finally recognized as its own spirit category in 2021. Pat Saperstein, Variety, 30 Oct. 2023 To him, the little layered cake is a good illustration of French bureaucracy, with the different parts of the system not joined up and working together. Anne Pouzargues, WIRED, 17 Oct. 2023 Early in Norman Mailer’s Harlot’s Ghost, perhaps the greatest novel about an American bureaucracy, the narrator describes a most unbureaucratic figure, a Maine fisherman named Snowman Dyer who died in 1870 in his sister’s home. Graeme Wood, The Atlantic, 2 Oct. 2023 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 28 Nov. 2023.

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

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