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 Oliver Wynn has been working in Los Angeles’s restaurant industry for half his life, starting as a dishwasher at 14 and spending the next 14 years climbing the industry’s competitive hierarchy. Tiana Lowe, Washington Examiner, "Newsom pushes Californians to the brink," 25 Feb. 2021 Not all positions within venture capital are created equal; there’s a hierarchy within each firm. Elizabeth Edwards, Forbes, "Check Your Stats: The Lack Of Diversity In Venture Capital Is Worse Than It Looks," 24 Feb. 2021 The Portland Trail Blazers nudged slightly higher up the NBA hierarchy in the latest batch of power rankings. Joe Freeman, oregonlive, "NBA power rankings: Portland Trail Blazers climb again after another winning week," 22 Feb. 2021 The whole affair reflects very poorly on Pope Francis and the Vatican hierarchy. Cameron Hilditch, National Review, "In the Second Cold War, Religious Americans Must Lead the Way," 21 Feb. 2021 The Wall Street Journal spoke with Ms. Goodell about leading an organization that eschews hierarchy, and Burning Man’s future in a time of pandemic. Ted Alcorn, WSJ, "Burning Man’s Mission in a Post-Covid World," 20 Feb. 2021 Smith’s legal team, which had been working its way up the tax division hierarchy, swung into high gear, arguing for a civil settlement. Bloomberg Wire, Dallas News, "How Austin billionaire Robert Smith avoided indictment for evading $43 million in federal taxes," 7 Feb. 2021 While Renaissance scholars were fascinated by the multiplicity of cultures in the ancient world, Enlightenment thinkers created a hierarchy with Greece and Rome, coded as white, on top, and everything else below. New York Times, "He Wants to Save Classics From Whiteness. Can the Field Survive?," 2 Feb. 2021 Some hospital systems are flouting state and federal guidance on the hierarchy for receiving the COVID-19 vaccine, according to health officials. From Usa Today Network And Wire Reports, USA TODAY, "Gorilla recovery, hydroxychloroquine return, prison problems: News from around our 50 states," 28 Jan. 2021

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

1 Mar 2021

Cite this Entry

“Hierarchy.” Merriam-Webster.com Dictionary, Merriam-Webster, https://www.merriam-webster.com/dictionary/hierarchy. Accessed 8 Mar. 2021.

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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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