Definition of aristocracy in US English:



or plural, usually the aristocracy
  • 1treated as singular or plural The highest class in certain societies, especially those holding hereditary titles or offices.

    ‘the ancient Polish aristocracy had hereditary right to elect the king’
    • ‘From its inception, it was meant to ward off the emergence of a hereditary aristocracy in the United States.’
    • ‘Oddly enough, the benefits he conferred upon the common people had the result of weakening the aristocracy, the social class from which he came.’
    • ‘Although he is descended from Russian aristocracy, he was not born with a silver spoon in his mouth.’
    • ‘By the time Messrs Landale and Morgan took to the field, duelling had ceased to be the preserve of the aristocracy and had been taken up by members of the middle classes.’
    • ‘A great many collectors from the upper aristocracy or rich middle classes called on her skill.’
    • ‘Some openly praised the virtues of aristocracy, though they made clear that they opposed hereditary aristocracy.’
    • ‘Tolstoy foresaw the end of the aristocracy in Russian society.’
    • ‘Highly prized de luxe models continued to be commissioned by the aristocracy and members of the bourgeoisie.’
    • ‘John Woodcock watched as final farewells were said to a respected member of the aristocracy.’
    • ‘In a society organized according to hierarchical caste, land was controlled by the aristocracy, and the lower classes rented, borrowed, or worked the land according to a sharecropping system.’
    • ‘In large towns, it tended to act as a collaborating class, offering the aristocracy and the upper middle class the means of power in exchange for recognition and status.’
    • ‘This makes William Wallace less of an historical oddity for not being a member of the aristocracy when he staged his famous rebellion.’
    • ‘They seem to contain many popular beliefs and customs, perhaps as practiced by the non-Aryan locals, and were later accepted by the aristocracy and the priestly class.’
    • ‘From its founder, the landed Lady Eve Balfour, onwards, the organisation has often found its supporters among the upper-middle classes and landed aristocracy.’
    • ‘The Ottoman system had no hereditary aristocracy, and its rulers worked hard to make sure that one did not arise.’
    • ‘This step was taken much earlier in London, where the Philharmonic Society was founded by an élite of the aristocracy, gentry, City, and professions in 1813.’
    • ‘Towering over the viewer, it is an imposing icon, with a size and status which at the time would have been customary for portraits of the aristocracy or gentry.’
    • ‘Scott's casual attitude to debt was certainly closer to that of the aristocracy than the middle class.’
    • ‘Classes are obvious - there were the aristocracy, the middle class or bourgeois, and of course the peasantry or rustic class.’
    • ‘Until the twentieth century, the primary patrons of churches and monasteries were the aristocracy, the only group in society who possessed the means to sponsor such projects.’
    • ‘The titian-haired lady of the finely-chiselled features detects the Scottish accent and confides that husband number one had been a Scot, a member of the aristocracy.’
    the nobility, the peerage, the gentry, the upper class, the ruling class, the privileged class, the elite, high society, the establishment, the patriciate, the haut monde, the beau monde
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    1. 1.1 A form of government in which power is held by the nobility.
      • ‘Aristotle produced a complex taxonomy of constitutions, the three main types of which are monarchy, aristocracy, and democracy.’
      • ‘Nor, despite their republicanism, did they seek the destruction of aristocracy.’
      • ‘The two could no longer coexist and it was therefore a class struggle between the Southern slaveholding aristocracy and the Northern capitalist democracy.’
      • ‘Aristotle pointed out in his book of lectures The Politics and in his studies of constitutions that aristocracy as an ideal too often degenerated into either oligarchy, the rule of the powerful, or plutocracy, the rule of the rich.’
      • ‘Both argued that irrespective of the form of government, be it monarchy, aristocracy, or democracy, a relatively compact minority always ruled.’
    2. 1.2 A state governed by the aristocracy.
      • ‘In essence, the Glorious Revolution was a coup d'état undertaken by an adventurous foreign prince and his mercenary army, supported by local aristocracies, not an uprising of ‘the people’.’
      • ‘The nineteenth century saw the emergence of Italy as a unified state and as a modern political system, moving from the ancien régime of monarchs and feudal aristocracies to an elected parliament and civil rights.’
      • ‘Rather they reveal Tocqueville's fixation on the contrast between classes in aristocracies and democracies.’
      • ‘The story of papal elections is really the story of the college of cardinals, which functions like the unelected aristocracies of the ancien regime.’
      • ‘This would continue for some time in Byzantium and in Scandinavia, in polities of strong public power or weak aristocracies.’
      • ‘But while the castles became increasingly the centres of seigneurial lordships and the centres of the power they exercised, this meant that aristocracies were now abandoning the cities.’
      • ‘The aristocracies of Milan, Naples, and Sicily intrigued against their Spanish viceroys; in Sardinia a viceroy was murdered by dissident nobles.’
      • ‘French indeed unified the aristocracies from the Capetian realm of France to southern Scotland.’
      • ‘Early British occupation was disruptive: aristocracies lost power and influence to the new rulers, the conditions under which land was held could be changed, and taxation was more rigorously enforced.’
      • ‘Central to this absorption into the Roman system was the more or less universal devolution of the burden of routine administration to the local aristocracies that replaced the client kingdoms.’
      • ‘The aristocracies of the many peoples of Italy enjoyed a common, quite uniform culture throughout this era, which served to distinguish them from their inferiors and expressed their right to membership of the elite.’
    3. 1.3 A group regarded as privileged or superior in a particular sphere.
      ‘high-level technocrats make up a large part of this “technical aristocracy.”’
      • ‘He dresses film stars, supermodels and the aristocracy of pop in clothes that are symbols of status and success.’
      • ‘Corporate people are capitalism's new aristocracy.’
      • ‘The marketing gurus have been the aristocracy of the sales-marketing community.’
      • ‘These groups were the intelligentsia, civil servants, the labour aristocracy, and successful petty producers.’
      • ‘Much of the native Kentucky racing establishment resent the perceived dilution of racing's aristocracy.’
      • ‘The tremendous pressure placed on Louisville workers to cater to the horse aristocracy was not limited to industries in direct contact with race fans.’
      • ‘But the structure created is one again of an aristocracy of corporate executives, with the majority of ‘opportunity’ the ability to sell your labor.’
      • ‘In more recent years the new aristocracies of the pop world have changed the city's landscape in their own glamorous ways.’


Aristocracy, oligarchy, and plutocracy are sometimes confused. All mean some form of rule by a small elite. Aristocracy is rule by a traditional elite, held to be made up of ‘the best’ people, and is usually hereditary. Oligarchy is literally rule by a few. Plutocracy is rule by the (necessarily few) very rich


Late 15th century: from Old French aristocratie, from Greek aristokratia, from aristos ‘best’ + -kratia ‘power’. The term originally denoted the government of a state by its best citizens, later by the rich and well born, hence the sense ‘nobility’, regardless of the form of government (mid 17th century).