Q: For years, Bill & Hillary Clinton have been called a “dynasty” in the mainstream media. But “dynasty” properly refers to a ruling family that wields power over generations. A married couple does not constitute a dynasty. However, this improper usage is catching on. Do you have any idea where it comes from?
A: Yes, “dynasty” did have a generational sense when it showed up in English in the 15th century, and that sense is often lost when the word is used today. Is this newer usage legit? Here’s the story.
English borrowed “dynasty” from the French dynastie, but it’s ultimately derived from δυναστεία, or dunasteia, classical Greek for power, lordship, or domination.
When “dynasty” showed up in English writing, it meant a “succession of rulers of the same line or family,” according to the Oxford English Dictionary.
The earliest example in the OED is from John Capgrave’s Abbreuiacion of Cronicles, an abbreviated history that the dictionary dates from sometime before 1464, the year Capgrave died: “Than entered þat lond [Egypt] þei of Tebes tyl xxxvi Dynastines had regned.”
But in the 1800s, “dynasty” took on various figurative and other extended meanings, weakening its generational sense. An “Aristotelian dynasty,” for example, might refer to Aristotle and his followers.
The earliest figurative citation in the dictionary is from John Reeves’s On Psalms (1800): “The next dynasty of theologists, the schoolmen.”
And in the 20th century, according to the OED, “dynasty” took on a figurative sports sense: “A run of success (by a team or club) which lasts for several seasons; a team or club achieving such success.”
The dictionary’s first sports example is from the Aug. 20, 1925, issue of the Lowell (Mass.) Sun: “It may be that the present Athletics and Pirates, setting most of the pace in this year’s pennant battles, are about to create new dynasties.”
The word “dynasty,” as you’ve noticed, is often used loosely, from the original TV Dynasty to the newer Duck Dynasty and the book Kardashian Dynasty. Is it now acceptable to refer to a “Clinton dynasty”?
Most of the standard dictionaries we regularly consult have expansive definitions for “dynasty” that would apply to the Clintons, especially if Mrs. Clinton is the next president.
For example, the definition of “dynasty” in Oxford Dictionaries online, a different entity from the OED, includes this sense: “A succession of people from the same family who play a prominent role in business, politics, or another field.”
And The American Heritage Dictionary of the English Language (5th ed.) includes this sense: “A succession of rulers from the same family or line.”
Cambridge Dictionaries online defines “dynasty” as “a series of rulers or leaders who are all from the same family,” while the Collins English Dictionary says it can refer to “any sequence of powerful leaders of the same family.”
Merriam-Webster Online defines it as, among other things, “a powerful group or family that maintains its position for a considerable time.”
And the Macmillan English Dictionary’s definition includes this sense: “a family whose members are very successful in business or politics for a long period of time.”
As we often remind our readers, especially the traditionalists among them, language changes. And the word “dynasty” has been changing since it showed up in English more than five centuries ago.
We think it’s legitimate to call the Clintons, like the Bushes and the Kennedys, a dynasty.