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 nature Israel 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.”

Example Sentences

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 Animating Fuseli’s drawings is the push-and-pull between attraction and revulsion, new and old, order and anarchy, male and female. Laird Borrelli-persson, Vogue, 25 Oct. 2022 In 1917 many Russians abandoned their support for democracy and, amid the chaos of the revolution and the ensuing civil war, endorsed an authoritarian state that would guarantee order and halt the spread of anarchy. Daniel Beer, Washington Post, 29 Sep. 2022 Toppings for these not-butter boards are veering into pure anarchy. Emily Heil, Washington Post, 4 Oct. 2022 The July death of Gen. Luis Alberto Rodríquez López-Calleja, Raúl’s former son-in-law, at 62 adds to the looming anarchy. Mary Anastasia O’grady, WSJ, 14 Aug. 2022 Unique in its explorations of anarchy, capitalism, and individualism, The Dispossessed deserved each one of its many awards, and is an undeniable cornerstone for the genre. Robert English,, 17 Sep. 2022 This proved a difficult task, and one that was stymied by meddlers like Dolores (Evan Rachel Wood) and Bernard (Jeffrey Wright) and Maeve (Thandiwe Newton) not to mention the collapse of the park itself into violence and anarchy. Erik Kain, Forbes, 8 Aug. 2022 Activists on Thursday were struggling to keep things calm and ensure that a mass citizens’ movement does not help tip a country still grappling with the legacy of a decades-long civil war into outright anarchy., 14 July 2022 Activists have struggled to keep things calm and ensure that a mass citizens’ movement does not help tip a country still grappling with the legacy of a decades-long civil war into outright anarchy. New York Times, 14 July 2022 See More

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

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 6 Dec. 2022.

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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