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  • Paul Anthony Jones


(n.) the process of creating or continuing the existence of a poor class of people

In 1774, the political theorist and Whig politician James Burgh coined a new term, ptochocracy, for a government elected by the poor. Burgh’s theory was that any government thus elected was thereby, in his understanding, blind to all issues except those that affected support for the poor.

The British government, therefore, taking it according to its avowed state, is neither absolute monarchy nor limited monarchy, nor aristocracy, nor democracy, nor a mixture of monarchy, aristocracy and democracy; by may be called a ptochocracy (the reader will pardon a new word) or government of beggars. For a few beggarly boroughs do avowedly elect the most important part of the government, the part which commands the purse.
James Burgh, Political Disquisition (1774)

Burgh invented his new word from the Greek word for ‘poverty’, ptokhós—and it’s this that is also the origin of the word that concerns us here.

Ptochogony is the process by which a government or ruling power creates, or else tolerates and maintains the existence of, an underclass of impoverished people. The Oxford English Dictionary dates this word to 1839, when it was first described as a “generation of beggars” by the English author and cleric Sydney Smith. It’s hard to tell from the context of Smith’s writing whether he made the word up himself or not, but regardless of its exact provenance ptochogony clearly comes from the same Greek root as Burgh’s ptochocracy.

The suffix –gony, meanwhile, is another Greek element: gonos, meaning ‘birth’ (a relative of words like genetics and generate) is used to form words in English bearing some sense of brining something into existence.

So theogony is the branch of theological thought that deals with the creation of gods. Cosmogony is the branch of astronomy that deals with the creation of the universe. Mythogony is the invention or study of the origins of myths and legends. Monogony is asexual reproduction. And ptochogony is the literal ‘creation’ of an impoverished class.

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