ˈhi(-ə)r-ˌär- How to pronounce hierarchy (audio)
plural hierarchies
: a division of angels
: 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
: church government by a hierarchy
: a body of persons in authority
: the classification of a group of people according to ability or to economic, social, or professional standing
also : the group so classified
: 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 See More
Recent Examples on the Web Most wine books about France start at the top — Bordeaux, Burgundy and Champagne — and work down through the hierarchy of the appellation system. Dave McIntyre, Washington Post, 25 Nov. 2023 While coyote packs do maintain some version of an alpha, their hierarchy is not as well-defined as the alpha in wolf packs. Hampton Bourne, Field & Stream, 22 Nov. 2023 In recent years, more women have moved into prominent positions throughout the league, with several rising to decision-making executive roles to redraw pro football’s hierarchy. Tom Withers, The Christian Science Monitor, 22 Nov. 2023 What's more, the mastery of fire, the development of language, the origin of the division of labor, the beginning of social hierarchies and even the emergence of culture could be related to hunting and eating meat. Katharina Menne, Scientific American, 25 Oct. 2023 India’s caste system evolved over centuries into a rigid social hierarchy based on notions of purity, with a person’s caste assigned at birth. Harmeet Kaur, CNN, 9 Oct. 2023 Birth order can also create a hierarchy: Older siblings are often asked to serve as babysitters, role models, and advice-givers for their younger siblings. Sarah Sloat, The Atlantic, 14 Nov. 2023 Maybe some of them see a chance to rise through a hierarchy, despite the murky morality of the drug business. Deborah Bonello, Los Angeles Times, 14 Nov. 2023 While some people may thrive on rigid structures, respond well to hard deadlines and appreciate a clear hierarchy, others will crave unfettered freedom and will happily push themselves. Barnaby Lashbrooke, Forbes, 13 Nov. 2023 See More

These examples are programmatically compiled from various online sources to illustrate current usage of the word 'hierarchy.' Any opinions expressed in the examples do not represent those of Merriam-Webster or its editors. Send us feedback about these examples.

Word History


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

First Known Use

14th century, in the meaning defined at sense 1

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

Dictionary Entries Near hierarchy

Cite this Entry

“Hierarchy.” Merriam-Webster.com Dictionary, Merriam-Webster, https://www.merriam-webster.com/dictionary/hierarchy. Accessed 3 Dec. 2023.

Kids Definition


hi·​er·​ar·​chy ˈhī-(ə-)ˌrär-kē How to pronounce hierarchy (audio)
plural hierarchies
: a ruling body especially of clergy organized into ranks
: an arrangement into a series according to rank
: persons or things arranged in ranks or classes

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