Never Forget How to Spell 'Bureaucracy' Again


I’ve been interviewing authors for the podcast lately, and one question we always ask is what words give them trouble, and I think more than half of the authors—successful, and in many cases New York Times bestselling authors—more than half of the authors say they can’t spell “bureaucracy,” so if you struggle with it, don’t feel bad. You’re not alone. It’s just a tough word.

First, let’s stipulate that most people don’t have a problem with the “cracy” part at the end. We’re familiar with that from “democracy,” “theocracy” and so on.

So we need help with the “bureau” part.

If you trace it all the way back to Latin, “bureau” shares a root with “burro”—the donkey. Weird, right? The relationship a little convoluted, so I won’t go into it for our purposes, but it’s easy to imagine that a bureaucrat not helping you from behind a desk is a stubborn donkey, a stubborn burro who won’t help you. And “burro” is a lot easier to spell: B-U-R-R-O.

Now, imagine that donkey not only stubbornly not helping you, but also putting on perfume while ignoring you and not helping you. A stubborn burrow putting perfume behind its ears. “Eau de obstruction.” How rude! 

This part might be a little tougher, but anyone who has shopped for perfume should have encountered phrases like “eau de toilette” and “eau de cologne.” The spelling of that “eau” part is what’s in the middle of “bureaucracy.” So imagine a stubborn burro dotting perfume behind its ears, and take the “bur” part from “burro,” (B-U-R) and the “eau” part from “eau de obstruction.” (E-A-U) Add a “cracy” on the end, and you have “bureaucracy.” 

It may seem silly—I know it does!—but I used to never be able to spell this word, and I’ve gotten it right every time since I came up with that little story, so I hope it helps you too.

Image courtesy of Shutterstock

Mignon Fogarty is Grammar Girl and the founder of Quick and Dirty Tips. Check out her New York Times best-seller, “Grammar Girl’s Quick and Dirty Tips for Better Writing.

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  • February 14, 2019