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When Michael Young, a British sociologist, coined the term meritocracy in 1958, it was in a dystopian satire. (source: "The War on Stupid People"@The Atlantic)

The satire mentioned was by Michael Young; but no evidence was presented that this was the actual origin of the term. Is that indeed the case?

  • The first use found by the Oxford English Dictionary was by A. Fox, in a 1956 article in Socialist Comm. The piece by M. Young was two years later. – GEdgar Jun 26 '16 at 0:46
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    @Gedgar: sounds like an answer? – Oddthinking Jun 26 '16 at 2:17
  • @Oddthinking - if properly cited, I'd definitely accept it. Is OED considered a sufficient cite by Skeptics rules? (though personally i'd prefer a quote from cited publication, if possible) – user5341 Jun 26 '16 at 2:28
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Google Ngram is a tool that list how often a word appeared in the printed works that Google scanned for it's Google books project.

The page for meritocracy indicates that the first usage was in 1811. From there it was used till 1816 and afterwards relatively forgotten. The word reappears in 1938. Till 1954 almost nobody used the term and it suddenly got a strong boost in 1955.

Did they use it in it's modern meaning? In 1954 Edward Abbey writes in Slumgullion stew:

The new America will be organized along sound military lines. Not an oligarchy as before, hiding behind a facade of democracy, but a hierarchy of power based on merit and ability. Meritocracy. Government of the people, yes. Government for the people, yes. But government by the people? Never again.

A hierarchy of power based on merit and ability is the modern meaning.

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From looking at the graph the year 1958 got a little bump but that year isn't very special for the usage of the word meritocracy.

This means the claim by The Atlantic is false.

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    The first part of this answer is incorrect. Google Ngram is based on Google Books, which is notorious for getting old stuff wrong. Go to books.google.com and search for uses of meritocracy before 1900. As far as I can tell, each and every reference is incorrect. Most are in journals and encyclopedias, which books.google.com incorrectly dates as being the date that journal/encyclopedia was founded. The reference to Household Words (Charles Dickens, editor) is due to a computer mistake, where the digitization misread "mediocracy" as "meritocracy". – David Hammen Jun 26 '16 at 16:02
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    The second part is also incorrect. Slumgullion stew was published in 1984 rather than 1954.Yet another machine translation error. – David Hammen Jun 26 '16 at 16:16
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This question sent me down the rabbit hole, chasing incredibly bad references at Google Ngram, Google Books, and Google Scholar. Some notable supposedly early references that use the word meritocracy or meritocratic (listed from supposedly oldest to newest):


One thing is certain: Multiple sources attribute the term to Michael Young (and there are many more, including the Atlantic article cited in the question), and Michael Young himself claims to have coined the term.

One other thing is certain: There are a few uses of the term in published media prior to the 1958 publication of Michael Young's The Rise of the Meritocracy. One is the 1956 in Socialist Commentary by Alan Fox entitled "Class and equality". Even earlier than that, Jean Floud used the term in 1955 in "Sociology and Education," The Sociological Review.

Jean Floud, Alan Fox, and Michael Young had a number of commonalities. Jean Floud taught at the London School of Economics while Michael Young was pursuing his PhD. Alan Fox was a member of that 1950s circle of left-leaning thinkers that included Jean Froud and Michael Young. Since all three are now dead, it's tough to say which amongst those three coined the word "meritocracy". Michael Young had already been evincing thoughts along the lines that led to his publication of The Rise of the Meritocracy since 1951. Most references go with Michael Young as the originator of the word.

One last thing is certain: The term as coined by one of those three was anything but complimentary. It was instead quite derogatory.

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