As the tech writer Antonio García Martínez pointed out, “It’s worth recalling that the word ‘meritocracy’ was coined as a satirical slur in a dystopic novel by a sociologist.” Martínez is referring to The Rise of the Meritocracy, 1870–2033, published in 1958 by the British sociologist and politician Michael Young. Young’s work was indeed intended as a social satire, positing a future in which trends in the British educational system were carried out to their absurd conclusions.
Written in the style of a doctoral dissertation by a scholar in the year 2034, The Rise of the Meritocracy imagines a world in which social class has been replaced by a hierarchy that places at the top those who could advance educationally through rigid testing standards. But those standards simply end up reinscribing the old class system, leading to a popular revolt.
Writing in The Guardian in 2001, a year before his death, Young looked back ruefully on how the irony of his coinage had been lost on the likes of Tony Blair, who was then making “meritocracy” the keystone of the Labour Party’s educational policy. “I have been sadly disappointed by my 1958 book, The Rise of the Meritocracy,” he wrote. “I coined a word which has gone into general circulation, especially in the United States, and most recently found a prominent place in the speeches of Mr Blair.” His book, he added, was “a satire meant to be a warning (which needless to say has not been heeded).”
The fate of meritocracy is a case study in how quickly a neologism can slip away from the grasp of its coiner. This frequently occurs with words that are coined in an academic context, but then shift in meaning as they become popularized. More recently, this has happened with another term from a sociologist: emotional labor, which Arlie Hochschild introduced in her 1983 book, The Managed Heart. Interviewed in November for The Atlantic, Hochschild acknowledged her discomfort with the semantic creep that her coinage had undergone. As Hochschild defines it, emotional labor is “the work, for which you’re paid, which centrally involves trying to feel the right feeling for the job,” such as flight attendants needing to smile at all times. But the term has been extended to cover household chores and the like. “It’s very blurry and over-applied,” she lamented.
Even if neologizers can’t control their creations, it is instructive to look at what has transpired with meritocracy. Young was, technically, not the first to put the word in print. Two years before his book was published, Alan Fox used it in an article in the journal Socialist Commentary. Fox defined meritocracy as “the society in which the gifted, the smart, the energetic, the ambitious and the ruthless are carefully sifted out and helped towards their destined positions of dominance.” In his book Equality and the British Left, Ben Jackson surmises that Fox had been introduced to the term by an early draft of Young’s book that was circulating in British socialist circles in the early 1950s.