Hoi Polloi

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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.

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7 thoughts on “Hoi Polloi”

  1. Very good reminders that terms, especially foreign ones, often take on meanings that are the opposite of their original definitions and that is sometimes due to sound correspondence. E.g., Nimrod was not an idiot or a screw-up and calling someone a nimrod is only an insult because it sounds like one. As for hoi polloi, I’ll bet you are right about the sound correspondence to hoity toity.

    Also, the article issue is very salient. At what point should a reasonably educated English-speaker be expected to know what a foreign word actually means in that language, or at what point does the literal meaning in the language of origination become irrelevant because the term has been completely naturalized as English. We expect people to know not to say “and et cetera.” But would be expect anyone short of a classicist to know that the Greek hoi includes the article? In the American west, most people know that rio means river, yet referring to the Rio Grande River is considered fine by some because in English Rio Grande has been absorbed as the name of the river, without any “internal” meaning, for a long time. Others disagree, but I think the argument holds that the river has been in the US for far long enough to have been Anglicized by Anglophones. The Algonquin word (roughly) connecticut includes the term river. I’ve never heard anyone complain that the Connecticut River is redundant. Likewise the River Avon. Avon by itself means “river” in British/Welsh, so River River. Algebra, cited in the article, is another good example. From just a “sound” reading, saying, “This is our punishment for associating with hoi polloi” does come across funny in a non-Stooge way.

  2. I enjoyed your post on hoi polloi immensely. My parents, first generation Irish from New York, used this term to mean snooty, rich people. And I’m sure it had to do with the similarity to hoity toity–another expression they were fond of using. Both expressions, by the way, sounded great with a real, old-fashioned New York accent.

  3. @ Maeve: OK well you may want to shoot me now; I always make fun of people who say “The La Brea Tar Pits.” I would either say “The Tar Pits” or “La Brea.” As in, “I went to the Tar Pits” or “I went to La Brea.” However, I’ve never been there. So maybe if La Brea is an area that also encompasses the tar pits (i.e., you can go to visit JUST the tar pits in La Brea, but you can also go to the theater in La Brea or the horse races in La Brea), then if you ONLY went to see the tar pits, I guess you could say you went to the La Brea tar pits.
    @Michael Tevlin: I guess we’re stuck with that, like the LA Lakers, and same for every other city starting with Las/Los. And what about The Hague?

    As far as words like alchemist and algebra including “the,” we are long past nitpicking over these. These words are too deeply embedded in the English language to start picking them apart. We do have things like al Qaeda, so the newer terms might be used correctly as our consciousness is maybe more raised these days (so hopefully nobody will say “The al Qaeda”).

  4. thebluebird11,
    Far be it from me to shoot anyone for an opinion, especially you. I’m usually in complete agreement with your observations. Not this time, however:
    We do have things like al Qaeda, so the newer terms might be used correctly as our consciousness is maybe more raised these days (so hopefully nobody will say “The al Qaeda”).

    I fail to see what having a “raised consciousness” has to do with English usage (apart from political correctness). Like venqax, I think that once a foreign word or phrase gains popularity in English, it is an English word and English speakers can do anything they want with it. The “al” in “al Qaeda” may mean “the” in Arabic, but in English, it’s just part of the name of a terrorist group. An English speaker is free to say something like “plans to deal with the al Qaeda threat” without worrying about creating a tautology. The fact that elements like “la” or “el” or “hoi” mean “the” in other languages is irrelevant to the way they are used in English.

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