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’ (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. You can continue to explore the unusual stories behind well-known words with the surprising origins of the word virus, the history behind the word vaccine, and the reason why the word homophobia meant something quite different when it was first coined.