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 Identify where your service sits in the hierarchy of a business and pinpoint what makes a good referrer based on this position. Sam Hurley, Forbes, 12 Feb. 2024 In the social hierarchy of the Hamptons, the village parking permit is a passport into some of the most exclusive summer circles. Stephanie Krikorian, Curbed, 1 Feb. 2024 The European hierarchy of wine is reinforced in a store, where bottles are arranged by country or region (emphasizing the insider concept of terroir) or by grape variety. Dave McIntyre, Washington Post, 1 Feb. 2024 That is because the Beckhams understand the inherent glamour of being photographed in an airport: a clinical environment that scrambles with hierarchies, forcing people from across social strata to queue and stare at massive TV screens together. Daniel Rodgers, Glamour, 30 Jan. 2024 These days, the feuding hierarchies—of capital, authenticity, virtue, victimhood—generate separate corps of recruits for the ruling class. Evan Osnos, The New Yorker, 22 Jan. 2024 But, by depicting their characters’ struggles, the films offer refreshing commentaries on the social construction of race and its devastating consequences for those at the bottom of the hierarchy. Salamishah Tillet, New York Times, 19 Jan. 2024 People normally think about competition among ant species as a hierarchy: one dominant species, the others subdominant. Lesley Evans Ogden, Smithsonian Magazine, 31 Jan. 2024 Everyone’s attitude is just so down-to-earth; there’s no hierarchy, everyone just mucks in and helps out. Brande Victorian, The Hollywood Reporter, 27 Jan. 2024 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 25 Feb. 2024.

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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