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 The trade off is that primates put in the time to groom each other to demonstrate their investment in the group, which reinforces their bonds and social hierarchy. Rebecca Renner, National Geographic, "Why some people can't resist crowds despite the pandemic," 24 June 2020 There is no hierarchy of importance in a pandemic, no case to render others irrelevant, but Posey’s announcement resonates like thunder in a sport desperate to keep its public-relations spin afloat. Bruce Jenkins, SFChronicle.com, "As Buster Posey’s decision ripples across baseball, will more stars opt out?," 10 July 2020 Washing whiteness out of the hierarchy of fashion wouldn’t just take adjustments to corporate leadership or less exploitive supply chains. Amanda Mull, The Atlantic, "Can Fashion Be Redeemed?," 7 July 2020 But so long as the first recommitted itself to the doctrines of racial hierarchy that had defined it until the war, the ex-rebels’ loyalty to it would once again be absolute. Richard Kreitner, The New Republic, "The Confederates Loved America, and They’re Still Defining What Patriotism Means," 30 June 2020 It’s not about a hierarchy that some people are above others. Washington Post, "Christine Lahti plays friend, feminist icon Steinem on PBS," 26 June 2020 Turn this hierarchy of values on its head and the atmosphere drastically shifts. Tim Parks, The New York Review of Books, "Indulging with Control in Fiction," 24 June 2020 This parallel existence of life and death in the novel undoes any possible sense of hierarchy. Anne Enright, The New York Review of Books, "Wanting Wrong," 6 July 2020 Despite sitting below the W-12 in the Bentley hierarchy, the V-8 doesn't feel like a poor relation, and its power and torque figures (542 horsepower and 568 pound-feet) are identical to those claimed for the Aston Martin DBX. Mike Duff, Car and Driver, "The 2021 Bentley Bentayga Gets a New Look," 2 July 2020

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

3 Aug 2020

Cite this Entry

“Hierarchy.” Merriam-Webster.com Dictionary, Merriam-Webster, https://www.merriam-webster.com/dictionary/hierarchy. Accessed 6 Aug. 2020.

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More Definitions for hierarchy


How to pronounce hierarchy (audio)

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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