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

Keep scrolling for more

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

But Mina has struggled to settle in Catalonia, making just six appearances across all competitions after putting pen to paper on a five-and-a-half-year contract with Barcelona, failing to make an impression on the club's hierarchy and supporters. SI.com, "Everton Edge Closer to Signing £21m-Rated Barcelona Defender & World Cup Star," 11 July 2018 Emily ZentnerThe Sacramento Bee Democrat John Chiang Loaded: 0% Progress: 0% 0:00 / 1:45 Get to know gubernatorial candidate John Chiang Advertisement State Treasurer John Chiang has risen through the hierarchy of California's financial offices. Bee Capitol Bureau, sacbee, "Watch major candidates for California governor talk about climate change, housing and ...," 2 June 2018 Domaine Roulot produces different cuvées, and tasting through the various Roulot whites provides a striking illustration of the concept of terroir, as well as the classification hierarchy of Burgundy. Jay Mcinerney, Town & Country, "Meet Jean-Marc Roulot, the Actor Turned Top French Winemaker," 29 May 2018 The hierarchy of college basketball tends to break the norms more than its football cousin. Michael Casagrande, AL.com, "'Weird things happen.' What Alabama thinks of being big underdog to Villanova," 16 Nov. 2017 The Bayern hierarchy were reportedly willing to pay as much as €55m (including the loan fee) for the 26-year-old, who scored seven goals in 23 league appearances for the Bundesliga champions last season. SI.com, "Colombia Star James Rodríguez Linked With Premier League Move Amid Rumours of Bayern Munich Exit," 29 June 2018 Even then, according to ex-followers, the Rajneesh hierarchy may not be satisfied. Win Mccormack, The New Republic, "Bhagwan’s Bottom Line II," 12 Apr. 2018 Like its promotional materials, the hierarchy of the tourism board is not exactly a bastion of diversity. Adrian Walker, BostonGlobe.com, "In boosting Boston, little emphasis on diversity," 9 Apr. 2018 The real political questions are, which hierarchies are legitimate and fair? Park Macdougald, Daily Intelligencer, "Why They Listen to Jordan Peterson," 11 Feb. 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.

See More

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

Keep scrolling for more

Learn More about hierarchy

Statistics for hierarchy

Last Updated

9 Oct 2018

Look-up Popularity

Time Traveler for hierarchy

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

See more words from the same century

Keep scrolling for more

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

Keep scrolling for more

Comments on hierarchy

What made you want to look up hierarchy? Please tell us where you read or heard it (including the quote, if possible).


lying above or upon

Get Word of the Day daily email!

Test Your Vocabulary

Words from Greek and Roman Mythology Quiz

  • the-triumph-of-venus-by-alessandro-magnasco
  • Boreal comes from the name of the ancient Greek god of which wind?
True or False

Test your knowledge - and maybe learn something along the way.


Test Your Knowledge - and learn some interesting things along the way.


Love words? Need even more definitions?

Subscribe to America's largest dictionary and get thousands more definitions and advanced search—ad free!