Of Tyrants and Dictators

I generally abhor the misuse of any term which has a specific meaning, and recently it has come up in discussion that one was again misused — or misused as I see it. Indeed, I much prefer the original Roman meaning for dictator and the Greek meaning for tyrant. I find that every subsequent use has degraded the original and added a connotation that they not necessarily deserve.

A problem arises thereby when the word would still be used in the original meaning, say Dictator for a Roman dictator, and a modern person would think that we are dealing with an unlawful person who torments and tortures everyone he can see. It would simply be untrue!

So, I would firstly reiterate what I see as the ‘correct’ terminology:

  • dictator: from Latin dictātor, originally signifying an official chosen/elected to the highest position with the important distinction that there could be only one dictator at a time, and he would be the authority. [And I dare say elected because as far as I can see, the person’s reputation was relevant and would be decisive in whether a dictatorship would be given to a person.]
  • tyrant: from Greek τύραννος, originally signifying anyone in power who had gained it by unusual means (unlawful means), and could imply something more than government just by a single person. This seems to have picked up a negative connotation soonest (although sometimes governing outside the law would probably be less bad than in other cases).

The reasons why I would keep on using these in the limited instances they apply in is that we actually do have a better word to imply the government by a single person as either of these is often used. And indeed, that third word, to me, also has an inherent negative sense that I cannot get rid of in my mind — quite possibly because it carries with it a sense of power that dictator and tyrant have given to law (even if operating outside of it).

This third word, a new(er) one, that I am speaking of, is αὐτοκρατής, or autocrat (autocrator) — a term used in history for (very legitimate) Eastern Roman Emperors, but still carrying a sense of power without restrictions that both dictator and tyrant seem to grapple with for me.

So, there we go — problem solved. Or, solved for me, at least. 🙂

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