hi·​er·​ar·​chy | \ ˈhī-(ə-)ˌrär-kē also ˈhi(-ə)r-ˌär- How to pronounce hierarchy (audio) \
plural hierarchies

Definition of hierarchy

1 : a division of angels
2a : a ruling body of clergy organized into orders or ranks each subordinate to the one above it especially : the bishops of a province or nation
b : church government by a hierarchy
3 : a body of persons in authority
4 : the classification of a group of people according to ability or to economic, social, or professional standing also : the group so classified
5 : a graded or ranked series a hierarchy of values

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What did hierarchy originally mean?

The earliest meaning of hierarchy in English has to do with the ranks of different types of angels in the celestial order. The idea of categorizing groups according to rank readily transferred to the organization of priestly or other governmental rule. The word hierarchy is, in fact, related to a number of governmental words in English, such as monarchy, anarchy, and oligarchy, although it itself is now very rarely used in relation to government.

The word comes from the Greek hierarchēs, which was formed by combining the words hieros, meaning “supernatural, holy,” and archos, meaning. “ruler.” Hierarchy has continued to spread its meaning beyond matters ecclesiastical and governmental, and today is commonly found used in reference to any one of a number of different forms of graded classification.

Examples of hierarchy in a Sentence

… he wrote a verse whose metaphors were read somewhere in the Baathist hierarchy as incitement to Kurdish nationalism. — Geraldine Brooks, Los Angeles Times, 30 Dec. 2001 Whereas the monkeys normally hew to strict hierarchies when it comes to who gets the best food and who grooms whom, there are no obvious top or rotten bananas in the sharing of millipede secretions. — Natalie Angier, New York Times, 5 Dec. 2000 The idea that social order has to come from a centralized, rational, bureaucratic hierarchy was very much associated with the industrial age. — Francis Fukuyama, Atlantic, May 1999 The church hierarchy faced resistance to some of their decisions. He was at the bottom of the corporate hierarchy. a rigid hierarchy of social classes
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Recent Examples on the Web The Celtics were monitoring the movement among other teams in the Eastern Conference’s upper tier, and while there were some minor moves, none appeared to reshape the hierarchy of the conference. Adam Himmelsbach, BostonGlobe.com, "Celtics could add a player in buyout market, but don’t make any moves at trade deadline," 6 Feb. 2020 The trade that reportedly involves center Clint Capela going to the Atlanta Hawks pushed Thompson up the hierarchy of targets. Chris Fedor, cleveland, "Kevin Love discusses Tristan Thompson trade rumors: ‘I only know him as a Cavalier and I like it that way’," 5 Feb. 2020 In addition to the period locations seen as characters drive around (and around) Los Angeles, including showbiz hangouts like Musso & Frank Grill, the movie focuses on the fluctuating hierarchies of Hollywood. John Jurgensen And Ellen Gamerman, WSJ, "What Five Oscar Nominations Tell Us About the State of Hollywood," 5 Feb. 2020 YouTube, which remains one of the biggest supportive spaces for LGBTQ youths on the Internet, has lately replicated the hierarchies of traditional celebrity, as LGBTQ vloggers turned into influencers with fandoms and followings and merchandise. Washington Post, "TikTok has become the soul of the LGBTQ Internet," 28 Jan. 2020 Her predecessors had gotten there after years of climbing the ranks of the record business and navigating the academy’s byzantine hierarchy of regional and national boards and committees. Ben Sisario, New York Times, "How the Grammys and Deborah Dugan Went From Hello to War in 5 Months," 23 Jan. 2020 The hierarchy of attendees is also enumerated, with more nuance, in WEF’s databases. David Yanofsky, Quartz, "How the World Economic Forum secretly categorizes Davos delegates," 20 Jan. 2020 According to the somewhat ephemeral and often arbitrary coolness hierarchy of dance music, popularity is corrosive to authenticity, especially the further removed the music itself is from the genre’s Chicago, Detroit, or New York roots. Zel Mccarthy, Billboard, "Batten Down the Hatches: Darude's 'Sandstorm' Just Turned 20," 30 Oct. 2019 His commitment to the racial hierarchy of the slaveholding South was whole cloth. Thomas Balcerski, Smithsonian, "The 175-Year History of Speculating About President James Buchanan’s Bachelorhood," 28 Aug. 2019

These example sentences are selected automatically from various online news sources to reflect current usage of the word 'hierarchy.' Views expressed in the examples do not represent the opinion of Merriam-Webster or its editors. Send us feedback.

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First Known Use of hierarchy

14th century, in the meaning defined at sense 1

History and Etymology for hierarchy

Middle English ierarchie rank or order of holy beings, from Anglo-French jerarchie, from Medieval Latin hierarchia, from Late Greek, from Greek hierarchēs

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Time Traveler for hierarchy

Time Traveler

The first known use of hierarchy was in the 14th century

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Statistics for hierarchy

Last Updated

13 Feb 2020

Cite this Entry

“Hierarchy.” Merriam-Webster.com Dictionary, Merriam-Webster, https://www.merriam-webster.com/dictionary/hierarchies. Accessed 17 Feb. 2020.

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More Definitions for hierarchy


How to pronounce hierarchy (audio)

English Language Learners Definition of hierarchy

: a group that controls an organization and is divided into different levels
: a system in which people or things are placed in a series of levels with different importance or status

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