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

If not an open division, if not making football its own hierarchy of placing schools separate from the rest of the sports, then automatically move a school up a conference based on stockpiling state championships. Richard Obert, azcentral, "Analysis: Five things the Arizona Interscholastic Association needs to get done," 3 July 2018 So that kind of gives you a general take on its corporate hierarchy. Fox News, "Judge Jeanine: The rise of socialism," 1 July 2018 On some level, of course, the post-normativity makeover is an oxymoron: Each of the five zhooshers are also necessarily judgers, ewwing and yassing according to their own taste hierarchies that are basically tuned with society’s. Spencer Kornhaber, The Atlantic, "How Queer Is Queer Eye?," 15 June 2018 The Browns also need to determine their quarterback hierarchy, though the team has stressed that veteran Tyrod Taylor would open the season as the starter over Mayfield. Lorenzo Reyes, USA TODAY, "Josh Gordon: Browns 'already' have best receiving corps in NFL," 12 June 2018 The questions of how the Vatican will deal with its own hierarchy and whether Francis has really seen past his blind spot remain, however. Jason Horowitz, New York Times, "Pope Accepts Resignation of Chilean Bishop Tied to Abuse Scandal," 11 June 2018 However, the France international has fallen out with the Sevilla hierarchy over the past twelve months and has reportedly handed in a transfer request in order to force through a move to the Emirates Stadium. SI.com, "Unai Emery Dismisses Reports Suggesting Arsenal Have Made Move to Reunite Him With Sevilla Star," 13 July 2018 Not everyone is quite so obsessed with hierarchy or quite so terrified of powerful women — sorry, of the negative female archetype, the Great Mother, the Dragon — as Professor Jordan Peterson. Laurie Penny, Longreads, "Peterson’s Complaint," 12 July 2018 The third freedom, freedom from hierarchy, is symbolized by Chicago’s ubiquitous street grid. Blair Kamin, chicagotribune.com, "For July 4th, four architectural freedoms," 2 July 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

11 Sep 2018

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Time Traveler for hierarchy

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

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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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