How did the word “despot” originate and What does despot mean?

Nowadays when we apply despot to a person, we mean to imply that he, whoever he may be, uses his position or power in an oppressive or tyrannical manner.

We don’t like him, or her, as the case may be, and we don’t want to be subject to his domineering authority. But this meaning is one that has developed within the past few centuries.

The original Greek, despotes, meant merely master, lord. During the Byzantine Empire, despot was used as a title of the emperor and, later, was a title bestowed upon princes or rulers of dependent countries.

A bishop or, especially, a patriarch of the Eastern Church was also addressed as despot. The word carried no connotation of tyrannical mastery.

But because the old Greek master of a household usually had absolute authority over his slaves and his family, despot began to carry the notion of tyrannical power some two hundred years ago.

Its frequent use in that sense during the French Revolution led to our present ordinary interpretation.