The Word ‘Cholarchy’

An Obscure Etymological Curiosity

The word ‘cholarchy’ is not to be found in any English dictionary — it’s exceedingly rare. I first learned it from my friend Sean B. Palmer in his weblog essay Lo! New Words, where he defines it as the ‘antonym of hierarchy’, and credits Sean McGrath with popularizing it in his 2002 article The Opposite of Hierarchy (he also tried to spread it in a short blog post later that year).

Just recently I had occasion to use the word, and I was curious about its etymology, and particularly its pronunciation. Even nine years later, documentation is scant. The 1996 mailing list post Sean cites claims that the word was coined by Arthur Koestler: ‘I think it was Koestler who coined the brilliant term “cholarchy” — the opposite of “hierarchy.”’

What, then, is its etymology? As I said, it’s not in any dictionary, but I checked the OED for similar words in the hope of finding others from the same root. I found the prefix chol- which is used in medical terms associated with bile, from the same Greek root as cholera and cholic acid and so on. That didn’t seem likely (that would make cholarchy literally mean ‘rule of or by bile’), so I went to try to find what Koestler had to say about the word, since he apparently coined it.

Google Books threw up nothing except a single use in a 2010 book titled A Guide to Humanistic Studies in Aging.

Sean suggested that it might be a typo for holarchy, which Koestler definitely did coin, though it’s not really an antonym of hierarchy but a kind of blend of hierarchy and heterarchy. So etymologically, it seems likely that ‘Rina M.’, the author of the mailing list post, accidentally coined this word by misremembering both the term and its meaning from Koestler.

Below is a complete list of unique instances of the word and its derivatives known to me outside of this article. Mere mentions, rather than uses, are marked *. I have excluded web pages that seem to be random collections of spam words, where the word crops up occasionally as filler.

As we see, in recent uses it seems to be tending specifically towards a description of the organization of societies or communities which are organized with some elements of anarchism or equalness of members. It’s interesting that the word is developing this nuance despite still being fairly obscure.