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 After European mercantilism exploded into early forms of empire in the 16th century, the ensuing markets of enslavement and exploitation fostered a logic of racial hierarchy that persists into the present day. Jo Livingstone, The New Republic, 16 Apr. 2021 Anti-Blackness is the organizing principle of not only racial hierarchy but of American democracy, as well. Washington Post, 24 Mar. 2021 How many accept the model minority myth at face value, not realizing it was created by the white majority as a means to push Black and Native Americans further down the racial hierarchy? cleveland, 19 Mar. 2021 These men had carved unlikely paths to success on the outskirts of America, where the nation’s racial hierarchy had not yet fully calcified. Victor Luckerson, Smithsonian Magazine, 17 Mar. 2021 Wilkerson indicated that within the U.S. there is a racial hierarchy that determines power and privilege within society. Janice Gassam Asare, Forbes, 11 Mar. 2021 In the decades after the Confederacy's defeat, white Southerners reimposed a racial hierarchy that politically and economically disenfranchised Black Americans through state repression and violent acts of terrorism. Matthew Brown, USA TODAY, 18 Dec. 2020 Georgia is changing, but the state, like much of the South, remains deeply rooted in racist ideology and racial hierarchy. Otis R. Taylor Jr., SFChronicle.com, 7 Dec. 2020 When federal lawmakers passed major labor reforms in the 1930s, President Franklin D. Roosevelt made compromises to win the support of Southern Democrats, exempting farmworkers from such protections and preserving the racial hierarchy. Gene Johnson, Star Tribune, 5 Nov. 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

5 Jun 2021

Cite this Entry

“Hierarchy.” Merriam-Webster.com Dictionary, Merriam-Webster, https://www.merriam-webster.com/dictionary/hierarchy. Accessed 15 Jun. 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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