A reader has asked me to write about the word hoi polloi:
I get so tired of intelligent people using this to mean the exact opposite.
Hoi polloi is an English word that derives from a Greek phrase meaning “the many” or “the majority [of citizens].” Its English meaning is “the masses” or “the general public.” It’s often used in the pejorative sense of “the vulgar, unthinking masses.”
The error the reader has in mind is the spreading tendency of many speakers (including intelligent ones) to use hoi polloi as if it means, “the social elite” or “influential rich people.” For example,
So it’s official: Hollywood’s hoi polloi (e.g. Miramax movie mogul Harvey Weinstein) are coming out against firearms ownership and swearing off movies that rely heavily on gunplay.
As Harvey Weinstein has a net worth of $200 million, the writer apparently believes that hoi polloi means “influential rich people.”
In ancient Greek, hoi polloi meant “the many.” Its complementary term was hoi oligoi, “the few.” The term reflected a fact of social and political division. From the Greek word oligoi, we get the English word oligarchy, “government by a small group of people.”
Classical scholar John Dryden introduced the expression into English in 1668. For him, the hoi polloi were people who lacked literary discernment. The expression quickly became a useful way for speakers to distinguish “Us” from “Them.” Because “Us” is always more educated and informed than “Them,” hoi polloi came to mean “the uneducated majority” or “the great unwashed, vulgar, unthinking public.”
Nowadays, although political power still belongs to the hoi oligoi, the hoi polloi are better educated than they were in Dryden’s time, and they don’t like being called hoi polloi. They also possess a power that earlier generations lacked: the power to redefine words.
One factor contributing to the association of hoi polloi with “snooty rich people” could be the similarity with “hoity toity,” an expression that conveys contempt for someone seen as “putting on airs.” The two expressions are often juxtaposed for humorous effect, as in the title of the Roseanne episode called “Hoi Polloi Meets Hoiti Toiti” (Roseanne, Season 9, Episode 8). In this episode, Roseanne and her family visit “uppity-high-society people” on Martha’s Vineyard. Although wealthier and more refined in manners and speech than the Conners, the wealthy Wentworths are clearly their moral inferiors.
Note: Roseanne is a television comedy series featuring a working class family, the Conners, who are portrayed as being vulgar in speech and manners, but morally superior to better-educated, more affluent characters they encounter.
Another factor contributing to the shift in meaning of hoi polloi may be that the referent is not always clear from context.
For example, in a Three Stooges episode called “Hoi Polloi,” a well-dressed man bets a colleague that he can take a man from “the lowest strata of society” and turn him into a gentleman. He experiments with the Stooges. He fails to civilize them, but the fancy people descend to the Stooges’ brutish behavior. At episode end, Moe looks disdainfully at the crowd of elegantly dressed men and women who are slapping, punching, and gouging one another and says, “This is our punishment for associating with the hoi polloi.”
New meanings of hoi polloi include, “people who are not like us,” “people we don’t like,” and simply, “people who don’t know what we know.” For example, in a forum for equestrians, a member referred to people who are ignorant of the rules of dressage as “the hoi polloi.”
The definition of hoi polloi in The Urban Dictionary indicates the aversion in which this word is held:
hoi polloi: A stupid term used by pseudo intellectuals with unjustified superiority complexes.
Many bloggers ridicule speakers who precede hoi polloi with the definite article:
Clearly Lois is using words though ignorant of their meaning. “Hoi” is the definite article, meaning “the”. When the uneducated Lois says “the hoi polloi” she is saying “the the many”. She makes a fool of herself on many levels.
Dryden knew that “hoi” means “the” in Greek. He even wrote the expression in Greek letters, confident that his target audience could read it. However, because he was using the word in an English sentence, he introduced it with the English definite article:
“If by the people you understand the multitude, the οἱ πολλοὶ.”
Suggesting that English speakers who say “the hoi polloi” are “ignorant” may bathe critics in feelings of superiority, but the criticism is itself a sign of absurd pedantry and, dare I say, ignorance of how language works.
Many English words incorporate a foreign element that means the without raising questions of tautology. For example, the al in algebra, alchemist, and Alcatraz “mean” the in Arabic. No one suggests that writing “the alchemist” is the same thing as writing “the the chemist.”
As far as I know, no one ridicules people who refer to the La Brea tar pits in Los Angeles for “really” saying “the the tar tar pits.” (La and Brea are Spanish for the and tar.)
Hoi polloi is an English word in transition. English speakers will determine whether the word retains the meaning of “the masses,” morphs into a term for “snooty rich people,” or falls to the wayside along with other words that usage has voted out as being culturally offensive.