hi·​er·​ar·​chy | \ˈhī-(ə-)ˌrär-kē also ˈhi(-ə)r-ˌär- \
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

However, the club's hierarchy are not yet certain if Ritchie is expendable this summer, even though it has been rumoured a big offer will convince the club to sell the Scotland international ahead of the new campaign. SI.com, "Local Report Provides Update on Matt Ritchie's Proposed Move to Stoke City," 4 July 2018 Some firms ban senior managers from dating anybody further down the chain of hierarchy within the company, while others ask for co-workers to disclose their relationships. Rachel Feintzeig, WSJ, "Scrutiny of CEOs’ Personal Lives Rises in #MeToo Era," 21 June 2018 At the highest levels of the eel hierarchy is OMNIS, a single strand of DNA that has encoded within it, every piece of literature and art. refinery29.com, "A Black Woman Quietly Saves The Day In Fahrenheit 451, Per Usual," 20 May 2018 But Dutcher appears to be shifting to a model where the three assistant coaches are considered equals instead of part of a hierarchy. Mark Zeigler, sandiegouniontribune.com, "SDSU's Brian Dutcher hires assistant basketball coach," 23 Apr. 2018 Parente said the company is also working to dismantle an internal sense of hierarchy that discouraged employees from sharing opposing viewpoints. Katherine Blunt, Houston Chronicle, "Petrobras working to change corporate culture after scandal," 5 Mar. 2018 What’s happened since marks an astounding reversal of form for B of A, and a major reshuffling of the hierarchy of America’s biggest banks. Shawn Tully, Fortune, "How Bank of America Can Catch J.P. Morgan," 22 Jan. 2018 If both are back, Michigan's running back hierarchy is clear. Nick Baumgardner, Detroit Free Press, "Karan Higdon, Chris Evans could give Michigan dynamic 1-2 punch in 2018," 9 Jan. 2018 Less hierarchy, less treating humans as mere production units. Vlad Savov, The Verge, "In Formula 1, you have to be amazing just to be average," 26 June 2018

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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Statistics for hierarchy

Last Updated

6 Nov 2018

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Time Traveler for hierarchy

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

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More Definitions for hierarchy



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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