Merriam-Webster Word of the Day: Despot


The Merriam-Webster Word of the Day is despot. Read on for what it means, how it’s used, and more.

What It Means

despot is a ruler who has total power and who often uses that power in cruel and unfair ways. Despot can also be used somewhat formally to refer to a person who simply has a lot of power over other people.

// Last semester, one of the history instructors taught a course about the ancient world’s most infamous despots.

// He was a successful basketball coach, but many people regarded him as a petty despot.

DESPOT in Context

“[The film Matilda] counts even more pointedly than the stage adaptation did on our reflexive sympathy for children subjected to the dictatorial whims of cruel adults. At the heart of it all is [actor, Emma] Thompson as heartless Agatha Trunchbull, authoritarian headmistress of Crunchem Hall, a primary school over which she presides with Olympian contempt for terrorized pupils she calls ‘maggots.’ Thompson is a lover of elaborate dress-up … and here she’s bulked up and uniformed like a totalitarian despot.” — Peter Marks, The Washington Post, 21 Dec. 2022

Did You Know?

In his 1755 dictionary, Samuel Johnson said of despot, “this word is not in use, except as applied to some Dacian prince; as the despot of Servia.” Indeed at that time, the word was mainly used to identify some very specific rulers or religious officials, and the title was an honorable one: it comes from a Greek word meaning “lord” or “master.” That situation changed toward the end of the 18th century, perhaps because French Revolutionists, who were said to have been “very liberal in conferring this title,” considered all sovereigns to be tyrannical. Eventually, despot came to be used primarily for any ruler who wielded absolute and often contemptuous and oppressive power.

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