Fight the . . . kyriarchy?

Kyriarchy. Do you know this word yet?

Regular readers of this semi-regular blog will know that I usually stick to issues of vocabulary and usage and avoid confronting topics that are political, religious, ideological, or otherwise potentially controversial.

But I occasionally stray, and that should be expected. Language doesn’t exist in a vacuum. It’s always political. That seeps into every discussion, and it’s happened here. In most cases, the politics remain discreet: they’re at a low level, or else so present that the topic can’t be discussed without the politics being obvious (making them easier to avoid). In a few cases, I’ve been more direct, giving a post only the veneer of “language blog objectivity.” This works for me: the blog stays out of hot water. The total audience and hit count continue to grow at a pace I’m happy with and I haven’t had to deal with any sudden bursts of attention due to sparking some controversy. I have no interest in wading through a bog of angry comments in response to something I’ve posted.

I’ve posted a few times on the charged topics of sexism and discrimination in language (here and here; I’ll add others as I remember them). I am very against this, and I go to great lengths to highlight it when I teach, so that my students learn better than my generation did. It isn’t very difficult: when it comes to sexism, English fares well compared to some languages. English hasn’t been a strongly gendered language since at least the 14th century; even our nouns don’t usually discriminate (exceptions exist, of course). For example, a doctor who happens to be a woman isn’t a doctoress or doctorette; a woman lawyer isn’t a lawyeress; we have one word for cook, one for mayor, one for professor, and so on.

Yes, we’ve had words that were specific to a woman in a particular activity: stewardess, actress, suffragette, dominatrix, to name a few. But most have faded from common use. Stewardesses are now flight attendants — the industry has frowned on the term for more than 40 years. Actress is used less since a deliberate effort to minimize it some years back (it wasn’t widely used until the 17th or 18th century, anyway). Some feminized words weren’t even natural creations, but were coined as insults (suffragette, around 1906) or to aid marketing (stewardess already existed, but was popularized by the airline industry in competition with “air hostess“). If you’re in a situation where the use of dominatrix is appropriate…that’s none of my business.

We also have some pronoun problems in English, with he/she and him/her sometimes causing trouble (plural they/them is still fighting uphill, but will eventually be the norm). Overall, though, it’s not a lot to complain about.

In my research on various issues, including discriminatory language, I run across fascinating new things all the time, including words I hadn’t encountered before. Earlier this year, I bumped into one such word:


Haven’t seen it before? Don’t be alarmed. It’s barely 20 years old (about 23, to be precise), and the use is fairly specialized. Sometimes a word’s origins are murky, clouded by time and distance. Sometimes there are competing claims. This one is easy: it was coined in 1992 by Elisabeth Schüssler Fiorenza in the book But She Said: Feminist Practices of Biblical Interpretation.

I couldn’t find an excerpt to show the first use of kyriarchy here, but Schüssler Fiorenza revisits the idea in a later work, Prejudice and Christian Beginnings , which is available online. There (page 9) she explains this neologism as a broadening of the concept of hierarchy, by implication including aspects of patriarchy, but not exclusively male. It’s a system built on a foundation of male dominance, but concerned with multiple power relationships. As I understand it (feel free to explore the source and offer your own interpretation), a kyriarchy is an intersection of many elements, even many systems, resulting in a complex web of power relationships, and not necessarily exclusive to a single group. While men might form the foundation of the system, and benefit the most from it, women can also have high status in it — because status isn’t only dictated by gender, but also by class, wealth, ethnicity, and other factors. Men usually have top status in the system, but those women most similar to high status men also have a (relatively) high status. By the same mechanism, those men who are least like those at the top — because of their class, profession, race, and so on — have low status in the system (typically beneath high status women).

This is somewhat simplified, but I think it covers what you need to know. (If you’re interested in more, review Schüssler Fiorenza’s interpretations of Greek democracy, Roman Imperialism, and Christian scripture as kyriarchical structures at the same linked location.)

What Schüssler Fiorenza highlights with this idea is that no system is as simple as many social critiques try to make them out: there are many complications and wrinkles. Certain things can be declared generally, but this risks missing important points. The specifics matter.

Schüssler Fiorenza created the word by combing the Greek roots “kyrios (lord, slave master, father, husband, elite propertied educated man) and archein (to rule, dominate).” Key to the concept is oppression: the system is always built on someone oppressing someone else. Which should surprise no one: that’s the foundation of every system of government, or of human interaction, that has ever existed.

What’s a simple working definition of kyriarchy? The online definitions fall short (wiktionary’s works in a pinch). They’re too wordy, or don’t get to the heart of things. We should go back to the source, and filter out subsequent interpretations, to offer our own:

kyriarchy (noun): the complex web created by the intersection of multiple social hierarchies and power relationships; any system of social positioning based on the overlap of multiple attributes, some inherent (gender, race), some not (class, age), some fixed at birth, others changeable.

If anyone can improve on that — and I hope someone will — let me know. I’d rather re-write it rather than miss the mark. I didn’t mention oppression here, for instance, because it’s inherent. But maybe that should be spelled out.

There’s been plenty of criticism of this word. Most comes from the extremes, either those who can’t tolerate challenges to “the system,” or those who see no alternative but overthrowing it. Some at that latter edge think that the word gives the former group something to hide behind; for example, that using kyriarchy lets the patriarchy off the hook.

I can’t but into this kind of justification. Every word you use, ever, has trade-offs. Those who worry that kyriarchy might obfuscate don’t seem to realize that patriarchy already lets many people off the hook as individuals: blaming the kyriarchy might perhaps let some oppressors slink away, but blaming the patriarchy already hides those same bad actors behind a faceless system that indicts all men, instead of individually exposing them as beneficiaries and perpetuators of the system. The use of patriarchy also lets many others, regardless of how much they benefit from and support the system, avoid responsibility merely because of their gender. A word that better specifies the problem, even if it requires a little more thought, is a better choice.

Kyriarchy hasn’t made it into any of the big three dictionaries yet (as of this morning). They’ve added many less-useful terms with less delay, so this one will get there soon.

Kyriarchy is a good concept, and a good word. You might not have frequent occasion to use it, but it’s a good thing to know. Consider yourself enlightened.


About thebettereditor

Chris holds a BA degree in history from the University of Virginia and a Master of Fine Arts (MFA) Degree in writing from the University of Southern Maine (Stonecoast). He has worked extensively with professional and semi-professional writers and enthusiastic amateurs for about 20 years. He has several years experience in scientific publishing, but has also worked in information technology, insurance, health care, and education (he taught writing at the university level for a number of years). Since 2011, he's also specialized in helping small business meet their writing and editing needs on a budget.
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2 Responses to Fight the . . . kyriarchy?

  1. vearjohn says:

    kyriarchy, yes, nice word, indeed;

    but, for everyday speech, it’s got a lot of syllables: 4.

    (…and, *ancient Greek*, again…)

    For common usage, doesn’t plain English offer us a short phrase?

    J V

    • Well…I didn’t mean to imply this was a word for everyday speech. I don’t think I’ve spoken it aloud yet, and I can count on one hand the written opportunities where it was appropriate.
      It’s quite specialized (as many of the vocabulary words I’ve covered in the past have been). It’s interesting to me because of the concept that it envelops (as well as the controversy around it).
      As far as “plain English” substitutions (which I’m all for, in most cases): the word I’ve most frequently seen used in competition with kyriarchy is “intersectionality.” Granted, it’s a little more ‘normal’ in terms of what an English speaker might be comfortable with. It doesn’t look so Greek (although I have absolutely no problem with that very Greek “kyr-” string). But if syllables is your criteria, it’s 175% longer. It’s also a slushier term, which a non-specialist can easily impose an incorrect meaning upon. I’ve also seen “intersectionality”used when discussing regional cultural blending, which is totally different from kyriarchy’s ‘oppressive hierarchical structures’ meaning.
      Let me know if you come across another alternative — it will be nice to know.

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