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The Curious Origin of the Word ‘Dystopia’

The interesting origins of dystopia

The word ‘dystopia’ is well-known as the opposite, or antonym of ‘utopia’. ‘Utopia’ owes its existence to Sir Thomas More (1478-1535), whose 1516 work Utopia introduced the word into English (though More’s book was actually written in Latin). Utopia is a pun, designed to put us in mind of the Greek u-topos (‘no place’) and eu-topos (‘good place’). Utopias, More appears to be saying, are too good to be true. The origin of the equivalent term, ‘dystopia’, is a rather interesting one.

If ‘utopia’ denotes an ideal or dream society, ‘dystopia’ is the word used to refer to an imagined nightmare world – normally the world of the future. According to the Oxford English Dictionary, the noun ‘dystopia’ (defined as ‘an imaginary place or condition in which everything is as bad as possible’) first turns up in print in 1952, and ‘dystopian’ Placa George Orwell surveillance cameras(in the word’s most common sense, namely ‘of or pertaining to a dystopia’) not until a decade later. But the first citation for the word ‘dystopian’ in the sense of ‘one who advocates or describes a dystopia’ comes from a speech made in the House of Commons by the Victorian philosopher, John Stuart Mill in 1868. ‘Dystopian’, then, was a Victorian coinage.

But recently the noun ‘dystopia’ has been traced back to 1747 where it is spelled ‘dustopia’ but is used in clear contrast to ‘utopia’. In short, the word – and the way of theorising the future which it involves – is much older than we commonly think.

What’s more, ‘dystopia’ hasn’t always been the preferred antonym for ‘utopia’. In 1818, Jeremy Bentham, well-known proponent of Utilitarianism, proposed an alternative: ‘As a match for Utopia (or the imagined seat of the best government), suppose a Cacotopia (or the imagined seat of the worst government) discovered and described.’

‘Cacotopia’ never really took off, though etymologically its credentials were faultless, matching the Greek topos with the Greek kako (‘bad’), as in ‘cacophony’ (and complementing nicely the ‘eu-topos’ of More’s original word). But the world was not having it, and ‘dystopia’ it was that became utopia’s preferred complement and antonym.

So much for the etymology or origin of the word ‘dystopia’; for more information about some of the defining works of dystopian literature, see our facts about dystopian fiction. Continue to explore word-histories with our post about the man who inspired the spoonerism and our history of the word ‘muggle’.

Image: Placa George Orwell in Barcelona, Spain is watched by video cameras, by fibercool; Wikimedia Commons; share-alike licence.

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About interestingliterature

A blog dedicated to rooting out the interesting stuff about classic books and authors.

Posted on April 11, 2016, in Literature and tagged , , , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink. 8 Comments.

  1. There is always the issue of sound symbolism, isn’t there? Dystopia does sound niftier than cacotopia, I think.

  2. I came across this term in true sense only after reading Orwell’s 1984 :)

  3. Awesome! Never knew this!

  4. Very interesting, thank you Oliver. I was not aware of the existence of the term ‘cacotopia’, interesting alternative, but I can see why dystopia took off instead. I think it would be quite restrictive to the genre and the concept in general as ‘kako’, evil, implies an evil intent, a purposefully bad form of government for example. Dystopia with the prefix ‘dys’, the same that appears in the Greek word for difficult (δύσκολος) for instance, can afford greater possibilities, covering the spectrum from the worst kind of government through to the creation of dystopia on account of more subtle, or even unintended, mis-governments, restrictions, pains…

  5. I was not aware of the term ‘cacotopia’. Interesting alternative. I can see, though, why ‘dystopia’ took off instead. The former would be somewhat restrictive on the genre and the concept in general. The element of ‘kako’, evil, implies evil intent, a purposefully bad form of governement for instance. ‘Dystopia’ with the prefix ‘dys’, the same that occurs in the Greek word for ‘difficult’ (δύσκολος) as well affords greater possibilities as it can cover the spectrum from the worst form of government through to the creation of a dystopia on account of more subtle, or even initially unintended, mis-governments, constraints, pains…
    On the other hand, I may be talking nonsense. Either way the post was very interesting. Thank you!

  6. We should not forget the word for a disappointing Utopia from The Simpson’s – a Fruitopia!

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