[ ol-i-gahr-kee ]
/ ˈɒl ɪˌgɑr ki /
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noun, plural ol·i·gar·chies.
a form of government in which all power is vested in a few persons or in a dominant class or clique; government by the few.
a state or organization so ruled.
the persons or class so ruling.


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Origin of oligarchy

First recorded in 1570–80; from Medieval Latin oligarchia, from Greek oligarchía. See olig-, -archy
Dictionary.com Unabridged Based on the Random House Unabridged Dictionary, © Random House, Inc. 2023


What does oligarchy mean?

Oligarchy is a term for a government in which power is held by a select few individuals or a small class of powerful people.

This can mean that these few people are the actual leaders, or that they influence or control the decisions that the leaders make (that 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.

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.

One of the select few who rules or influences leaders in an oligarchy can be called an oligarch.

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: The members of just three families have run the country as an oligarchy for decades, serving only their own interests.

Why is oligarchy trending?

Searches for oligarch and oligarchy 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 in media reports as oligarchs (and sometimes collectively as members of the Russian oligarchy).

Where does oligarchy come from?

The first records of the word oligarchy come from the 1570s. It comes from the Greek oligarchía and is formed from oligo-, meaning “few,” and -archy, meaning  “rule” (the same ending is used in words like monarchy and anarchy).

The word oligarchy 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, the ruling or influential members of an oligarchy 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 them members of an oligarchy. Referring to a government, country, or system as an oligarchy usually implies that such a system involves corruption and oppression—no matter what the official form of government is or what the specific politics of its leaders are.

Oligarchy is often used alongside other critical terms for forms of government thought to be corrupt or unjust, such as plutocracy (a government ruled by or influenced by the wealthy) and autocracy (a government in which one person has unlimited power).

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What are some other forms related to oligarchy?

What are some words that share a root or word element with oligarchy

What are some words that often get used in discussing oligarchy?

How is oligarchy used in real life?

Oligarchy 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 oligarchy!

Which of the following people are most likely to hold power in a government considered an oligarchy?

A. a queen
B. an elected prime minister
C. a dozen wealthy businesspeople
D. a parliament elected by the people

How to use oligarchy in a sentence

British Dictionary definitions for oligarchy

/ (ˈɒlɪˌɡɑːkɪ) /

noun plural -chies
government by a small group of people
a state or organization so governed
a small body of individuals ruling such a state
mainly US a small clique of private citizens who exert a strong influence on government

Derived forms of oligarchy

oligarchic or oligarchical, adjectiveoligarchically, adverb

Word Origin for oligarchy

C16: via Medieval Latin from Greek oligarkhia, from olígos few + -archy
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

Cultural definitions for oligarchy

[ (ol-uh-gahr-kee, oh-luh-gahr-kee) ]

A system of government in which power is held by a small group.

The New Dictionary of Cultural Literacy, Third Edition Copyright © 2005 by Houghton Mifflin Harcourt Publishing Company. Published by Houghton Mifflin Harcourt Publishing Company. All rights reserved.