The Culture Verbal Energy Verbal Energy

Going off, leaving the furniture in charge

The Monitor’s language columnist is reminded that bureaucracy is literally ‘rule by desks.’

Emmanuel Macron, president of France and a graduate of the École Nationale d’Administration, celebrates on the stage at his victory rally near the Louvre in Paris, France on May 7, 2017.
Christian Hartmann/Reuters
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  • Ruth Walker

An expatriate journalist’s account of the red tape involved in getting her French driver’s license caught my eye the other day.

She expressed a certain grudging admiration for something Americans aren’t used to regarding positively: bureaucracy. But the French do take their bureaucracy seriously. Their École Nationale d’Administration, the National School of Administration, has produced more French presidents and prime ministers than Harvard has produced US presidents, despite Harvard’s 300-year-plus head start (ENA goes back only to 1945).

The writer noted in passing: “[T]he French invented a term that means, literally, government by desks.”

Really? Indeed, yes. And quite a bit of terminology for government, and governance, stems from furniture metaphors.

The Online Etymology Dictionary credits French economist Jean Claude Marie Vincent de Gournay (1712-59) with coining the term la bureaucratie, analogous with aristocracy (“rule of the best [citizens]”) or democracy (power or rule of the people). And yes, bureau really meant “desk.”

By 1815 his coinage had made it across the English Channel. The Oxford English Dictionary’s first usage example of it cites The Times of London: “that complication of intrigues of wheels within wheels, which is called bureaucracy.”

Among other examples of furniture as governance: secretary. In the late 14th century it meant a “person entrusted with secrets,” a trusted counselor, with some letter-writing and note-taking duties. The word has since bifurcated to refer either to the kind of secretary who nowadays prefers to be known as an executive assistant, thank you, or the kind who heads an executive department of the federal government.

But secretary has also long been used to mean a desk for keeping secret papers.

Then there’s board, as in a board of directors. It was originally the table around which directors sat; it later came to mean the directors themselves. (And of course the “chair” heads the “board.”)

Cabinet is, etymologically, a small room, related to our cabin.

Originally it was a case, and later a piece of furniture, for keeping papers or other valuable items. By 1600 a “cabinet” was a private room where ministers met. By the mid-1600s, cabinet had acquired its modern political meaning: the chief advisers of a head of government.

But back to our desks for a moment. 

Who sits at the desks of bureaucracy? Bureaucrats. It’s not a term of praise. And the would-be alternative term civil servant is conspicuous by its absence from American English. Indeed, it “shines” or “sparkles” by its absence, as the French idiom has it (briller par son absence).

But for all the suggestions that “bureaucracy” is some vast soulless machinery cranking away – as in the Times quote – there are human beings at those desks. This is why it’s possible for an American president to head off on a major trip with several of his top advisers and know things will keep running back at home.

Etymology aside, they aren’t just going off and leaving the furniture in charge.