[ ol-i-gahrk ]
/ ˈɒl ɪˌgɑrk /
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one of the rulers in an oligarchy.
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Origin of oligarch

First recorded in 1600–10; from Greek oligárchēs; see origin at olig-, + -arch
Dictionary.com Unabridged Based on the Random House Unabridged Dictionary, © Random House, Inc. 2023


What does oligarch mean?

An oligarch is one of the select few people who rule or influence leaders in an oligarchy—a government in which power is held by a select few individuals or a small class of powerful people.

Oligarchs can be the actual leaders, or they can influence or control the decisions that the leaders make (meaning they’re the ones “pulling the strings” behind the scenes).

Oligarchy is never used as an official term for a form of government (like monarchy is, for example)—it’s almost always applied as a criticism of such situations. It is frequently used as a way of pointing out the influence of the wealthy and powerful in politics and government—an influence that’s typically used to benefit themselves. Oligarch is used in the same way.

A country that is thought to have an oligarchic government can also be referred to as an oligarchy, as in Many outsiders view the nation as an oppressive oligarchy.  

Oligarchy can also refer to the class of people who have the power in this kind of system, as in The country was run by an oligarchy consisting of a few powerful industrialists.

The word oligarch can refer to a person who’s a part of an oligarchy in any of the senses of the word.

The word oligarch is especially associated with and applied to Russian figures  known for their wealth and political influence. These figures are frequently called Russian oligarchs and are sometimes referred to collectively as the Russian oligarchy.  

Example: Oligarchs from just three powerful families have run the country for decades, serving only their own interests.

Why is oligarch trending?

Searches for oligarch on Dictionary.com increased in early 2022 during the Russian invasion of Ukraine. In the early days of the invasion, the European Union, the U.S., and other countries implemented sanctions against Russian leader Vladimir Putin and Russian financial institutions, as well as wealthy Russian business figures with ties to Putin and the Russian government. These individuals were frequently referred to as oligarchs in media reports.

Where does oligarch come from?

The first records of the word oligarch come from the early 1600s. It comes from the Greek oligarchía and is formed from oligo-, meaning “few,” and -arch, meaning “ruler” or “leader” (the same ending is used in monarch).

The word oligarch does not imply a specific political doctrine or philosophy. Instead, it’s based on the fact that only a few powerful people control things. In this sense, oligarchy can be thought of as the opposite of democracy—at least based on the roots of each word. While oligarchy is the “rule of the few,” democracy is thought of as the “rule of the many”—demo means “people” and cracy means “rule.” (A dictatorship is the “rule of the one.”)

People considered oligarchs are often thought to be part of a small group of powerful, elite people whose power comes through wealth, connections, or some other status that makes them highly influential. Though there are few of them, oligarchs may not always act in agreement and may even oppose each other. However, the fact that they are among the few who have real power makes oligarchs. Referring to someone as an oligarch usually implies that they’re part of a system that’s corrupt and oppressive—regardless of the official form of government or the specific politics of its leaders.

Oligarch is often used alongside other critical terms for members of other forms of government thought to be corrupt or unjust, such as plutocrat (a wealthy person who uses their wealth to rule or control the government) and autocrat (a ruler with unlimited power).

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How is oligarch used in real life?

Oligarch is almost always used in a critical way. It usually implies that rule by only a few always results in corruption and oppression.



Try using oligarch!

Is oligarch used correctly in the following sentence?

People labeled him as an oligarch for using his billions to sway elections and influence legislation.

How to use oligarch in a sentence

British Dictionary definitions for oligarch

/ (ˈɒlɪˌɡɑːk) /

a member of an oligarchy
Collins English Dictionary - Complete & Unabridged 2012 Digital Edition © William Collins Sons & Co. Ltd. 1979, 1986 © HarperCollins Publishers 1998, 2000, 2003, 2005, 2006, 2007, 2009, 2012