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

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 See More
Recent Examples on the Web By this point in his career, Kendrick clearly understood his place in rap’s hierarchy and made sure not to waste a breath with any rhyme. Michael Saponara, Billboard, 9 May 2022 At $56,030 the Trailhawk 4x4 sits just above the volume-selling Limited and below the Overland in the Grand Cherokee pricing and equipment hierarchy. Dan Edmunds, Car and Driver, 9 May 2022 But the cartel’s hierarchy had weakened, and El Tigrillo was starting to lose control. San Diego Union-Tribune, 3 May 2022 Francis also called for the commission to conduct an annual audit of what is being globally done by the Catholic hierarchy, and what needs to change, to better protect children and vulnerable adults from abuse. Nicole Winfield, ajc, 29 Apr. 2022 Your question focused so much on the things that are outside of your control, and there is a lot: your family member’s illness, the hierarchy at the shop, the preferences of the customers. Jennifer Mizgata, Fortune, 29 Apr. 2022 This hierarchy allows individuals to freely choose their path in life and to raise their children according to their values, not those of a government agency. Tunku Varadarajan, WSJ, 29 Apr. 2022 Mike Trout might have already reclaimed his longstanding place in baseball’s hierarchy. Dylan Hernández, Los Angeles Times, 28 Apr. 2022 This hierarchy is created by elites of various sorts, who act independently of those holding political power. Francis Fukuyama, Harper’s Magazine , 27 Apr. 2022 See More

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.

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

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Last Updated

12 May 2022

Cite this Entry

“Hierarchy.” Merriam-Webster.com Dictionary, Merriam-Webster, https://www.merriam-webster.com/dictionary/hierarchy. Accessed 19 May. 2022.

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