In today’s Independent Guy Keleny discusses the word dictator and how it sits uneasily as a description of the King of Saudi Arabia.
What is wrong with this use of the word “dictatorship” in the following sentence? … “The West props up numerous Middle Eastern dictatorships, including the fundamentalist House of Saud.”
Well, according to the dictionaries, nothing. Absolute power in the hands of a single person or clique? Population kept in order by state oppression? Tick the boxes; it’s a dictatorship.
He then goes on to explain how the word comes from the Roman Republic, and he expresses a preference for autocrat or despot to describe a monarch. That is coming close to the etymological fallacy but usage does appear to be on his side. While the COED does not mention a republic:
1 a ruler with total power over a country. Ø an autocratic person.
2 (in ancient Rome) a chief magistrate with absolute power, appointed in an emergency.
The OED has (my emphasis):
1 A ruler or governor whose word is law; an absolute ruler of a state.
1.a orig. The appellation of a chief magistrate invested with absolute authority, elected in seasons of emergency by the Romans, and by other Italian states. (1387)
1.b A person exercising similar authority in a mediæval or modern state; esp. one who attains to such a position in a republic. Also transf. (c. 1592)
2. A person exercising absolute authority of any kind or in any sphere; one who authoritatively prescribes a course of action or dictates what is to be done. (1605)
The dates in brackets are the earliest quotation in the OED for each sense, suggesting that Keleny is not quite right in saying:
After [the Roman Republic], the word “dictator” seems to have gone underground for 2,000 years. The thing didn’t go away, of course. In the 19th century, the seizure of power by a single person was called Caesarism. But it wasn’t until the early 20th century that “the dictators” arrived, that infestation of “strong men”, with their utopian “ideologies”, Ruritanian uniforms and gory torture-cellars, who inflicted such disasters on Europe between 1918 and 1945.
It seems from the OED that Caesarism was mostly used to refer to the Bonaparte dynasty, but in that paragraph another word caught my eye: Ruritanian. Any English-speaker will know what is meant here but it is utterly baffling to speakers of foreign languages who think that they know something of geography but have never heard of Ruritania, and will search in vain for it on a map of Europe. In A Guide to English Language Usage I say:
The ﬁctional Kingdom of Ruritania, particularly its capital Strelsau, was the setting for the novel The Prisoner of Zenda (1894) and others by Anthony Hope. Hope’s Ruritania is an autocratic, German‑speaking, Catholic country between Saxony and Bohemia in central Europe; however, the ﬁlms made from the novel and media references to the country present it as a picturesque, romantic, fairy‑tale kingdom with a much less precise location.
(images from Wikimedia Commons and https://government.ruritania.net/)