Lexical Investigations: Anarchy



The word anarchy has held the negative connotations of lawlessness leading to disorder and chaos since the sixteenth century, but in 1840, the first self-proclaimed anarchist started to project a more positive sense of the word. Pierre-Joseph Proudhon (pictured) wrote in his work What is Property? that, “property is robbery,” and that, “Although a firm friend of order, I am (in the full force of the term) an anarchist.”

Anarchist Manifesto, written by Anselme Bellegarrigue in 1850, starts with the words “Anarchy is Order.” Bellegarrigue argues that anarchy does not mean chaos or civil war, but rather the “negation of governments,” and ultimately, “the true expression of social order.” Nevertheless, the associations between the word anarchy and violence were strengthened in 1901 when self-identified anarchist Leon Czolgosz assassinated US President William McKinley.

If you’re not sure whether individuals view anarchy as senseless chaos or a valid political theory, their choice of adjective might just give them away: anarchistic is more often used when referring to political ideas, whereas anarchic is used pejoratively to describe anything lawless or reckless.

Popular References:

Sons of Anarchy, TV Show. Premiered in 2008 on FX.

The Anarchist Cookbook, Movie, 2002. This film takes its title from the 1971 book of the same name, which contained instructions for making explosives and other devices.

“Anarchy in the U.K.,: Sex Pistols, LP, 1976. The punk movement adopted the term anarchy to express their anger at systems they despised, and in 1976, the Sex Pistol emerged with their debut single “Anarchy in the U.K.”

Related Quotations:

“Vulgar error has taken ‘anarchy’ to be synonymous with ‘civil war.’”

—Anselm Bellegarrigue, Anarchist Manifesto (1850)

Turning and turning in the widening gyre

The falcon cannot hear the falconer;

Things fall apart; the centre cannot hold;

Mere anarchy is loosed upon the world.

—William Butler Yeats, “The Second Coming” (1919)

Read our previous post about the word happiness.

A motley combination of Anglo-Saxon, Latin, and Germanic dialects, the English language (more or less as we know it) coalesced between the 9th and 13th centuries. Since then, it has continued to import and borrow words and expressions from around the world, and the meanings have mutated. (Awesome and awful once meant nearly the same thing.) Some specimens in the English vocabulary have followed unusually circuitous routes to their place in the contemporary lexicon, and this series, Lexical Investigations, unpacks those words hiding in our midst.


  1. Nwana Clopas -  January 8, 2015 - 8:38 am

    A woman told me that, decency is what you called decency. Deep in me I knew she’s not got a good sense of decency. I was abit confused and felt like being left behind. But after reading true meaning of Love,happiness and anarchy, I feel like waooo. Thank you for your findings.

  2. Heather -  December 29, 2014 - 12:08 am

    “Anarchy” can be seen as an idealistic word. It’s true meaning seems positive at first. Man acts on common sense and the law is his own conscience. There is no need for written law when the law is in one’s mind.

    The reality of such a system is what makes the word mean chaos or disorder. Most people are naturally disorganized to begin with, and such an anarchist system would make things worse. Most people could not survive or thrive without their government.

    • Winchester -  January 14, 2015 - 3:29 pm

      That’s the Hobbesian outlook. It’s incorrect in human history, and incorrect according to human nature. Production preceded predation, and government originated in predation.

  3. brianna -  November 25, 2014 - 9:29 am

    me to

  4. Steven Sweat -  July 1, 2014 - 7:30 pm

    I’m with the camp that views “Anarchy” with a negative connotation. To me, it just denotes chaos and disorder.

    • MsCarol -  October 4, 2014 - 9:32 pm

      Anarchy has but two laws – respect private property and do what you will as long as it does not incite aggression or violence. “My loyalties will not be bound by national borders, or confined in time by one nation’s history, or limited in the spiritual dimension by one language and culture. I pledge my allegiance to the damned human race, and my everlasting love to the green hills of Earth, and my intimations of glory to the singing stars, to the very end of space and time.” Edward Abbey

  5. Vinay kumar sharma -  June 27, 2014 - 10:45 am

    This system is very good send my email par kuchchh bate bhegiye

  6. Austin -  June 26, 2014 - 1:34 am

    The best is yet to come

  7. damon -  March 13, 2014 - 7:58 pm


  8. Idiomatic -  February 10, 2014 - 2:29 am

    This quite interesting to know the history of Anarchy word. Thanks.

  9. Rebecca -  December 17, 2013 - 7:46 pm

    I think that in today’s world people take things farther then it should be. Then once they got this information they share it and then you know it is a whole different meaning then what it was before it was shared.

    • Johnathon -  April 28, 2014 - 10:15 am

      I agree. Ha! Just saw when this was posted. So many personalities twist the meanings of everything. Sometimes I wonder if I am receiving something the right way and then is my way of right the right way.

    • Austin -  June 26, 2014 - 1:32 am

      The best is yet to come


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