hoi polloi

plural noun

hoi pol·​loi ˌhȯi-pə-ˈlȯi How to pronounce hoi polloi (audio)
1
: the general populace : masses
2
: people of distinction or wealth or elevated social status : elite
Usage and Meanings of Hoi Polloi

Since hoi polloi is a transliteration of the Greek for "the many," some critics have asserted that the phrase should not be preceded by the. They find "the hoi polloi" to be redundant, equivalent to "the the many"—an opinion that fails to recognize that hoi means nothing at all in English. Nonetheless, the opinion has influenced the omission of the in the usage of some writers.

Family-owned businesses that select their CEOs from all family members fare no worse than companies that select talent from hoi polloi. The Wilson Quarterly

But most writers use the, which is normal English grammar.

A third, more readily acceptable innovation, was the new taste for whiskey as a drink, first for the hoi polloi and ultimately for the gentry. Jacques Barzun
… rented mainly to corporations to allow their VIPs air-conditioned splendor high above the hoi polloi. James B. Twitchell

A number of critics also warn against the use of hoi polloi in sense 2, a sense that directly contradicts its original meaning. The sense is not commonly covered in dictionaries, but it does appear—albeit rarely—in published, edited text, as it has since the mid-20th century.

… I could fly over to Europe and join the rich hoi polloi, at Monte Carlo. Westbrook Pegler
Most of the hoi polloi and VIPs who move and shake New York went first to a book party for Time's former headman, Henry Grunwald, in the New York Public Library. Liz Smith

We first heard of this sense in the early 1950s, when it was reported to be well established in spoken use in such diverse locales as central New Jersey, southern California, Cleveland, Ohio, and Las Vegas, Nevada. Several members of our editorial staff at that time also testified to its common occurrence, and evidence in the years since strongly suggests that this sense of hoi polloi continues to be frequently used in speech. We do not know for certain how this new sense originated, but one possibility is that it developed out of the inherent snobbery of hoi polloi. In its original and primary sense, hoi polloi is a term used by snobs or—more often—in mocking imitation of snobs. Even its sound has a quality of haughtiness and condescension (much like that of hoity-toity, a term that underwent a similar extension of meaning in the 20th century, from its former sense, "frivolous," to its current sense, "marked by an air of superiority"). It may be that people unfamiliar with the meaning of hoi polloi, but conscious of its strong associations with snobbery, misunderstood it as an arrogant term for the haves rather than a contemptuous term for the have-nots, thus giving rise to its newer, contradictory sense.

Did you know?

In Greek, hoi polloi means simply "the many". (Even though hoi itself means "the", in English we almost always say "the hoi polloi".) It comes originally from the famous Funeral Oration by Pericles, where it was actually used in a positive way. Today it's generally used by people who think of themselves as superior—though it's also sometimes used in Pericles' democratic spirit. By the way, it has no relation to hoity-toity, meaning "stuck-up", which starts with the same sound but has nothing to do with Greek.

Example Sentences

Recent Examples on the Web Still Musk likes it as way to garner subscription revenue and somehow put big names on the same level as the hoi polloi. Steven Levy, WIRED, 4 Nov. 2022 What’s fit for the culture-industry élite is deemed unfit for the hoi polloi. Alex Ross, The New Yorker, 27 Oct. 2022 The company evidently believes there’s a power-user subset of the 332 million-plus daily Snapchat users who will fork over four bucks each month to get early access to features not available to the hoi polloi. Todd Spangler, Variety, 29 June 2022 Leaning above quiet Cape Porpoise Harbor, Nunan’s Lobster Hut attracts everyone from local fishermen to the hoi polloi from nearby Kennebunkport to rub elbows at its wooden tables beneath the lobster buoys hanging from its rafters. Greg Melville, Outside Online, 24 June 2014 Both are complete traffic nightmares; both involve one group of people ending the night elated and drunk while another leaves despondent and drunk; both keep the big stars confined to special seating where the hoi polloi cannot even see them. Los Angeles Times, 14 Feb. 2022 It was bonded to the belief that hoi polloi could take charge of their story. Robin Givhan, Washington Post, 15 Nov. 2021 This has become something of a pundit subgenre after some similar encounters at restaurants went down during the Trump era, spawning talk of whether the hoi polloi needed an authoritative guide on how to interact with their betters in public. Jason Linkins, The New Republic, 9 Oct. 2021 The New York club scene was markedly different in the early 1990s — VIP sections were rare, and stars rubbed elbows with the hoi polloi. Elias Leight, Rolling Stone, 7 Oct. 2021 See More

These example sentences are selected automatically from various online news sources to reflect current usage of the word 'hoi polloi.' Views expressed in the examples do not represent the opinion of Merriam-Webster or its editors. Send us feedback.

Word History

Etymology

Greek, the many

First Known Use

1837, in the meaning defined at sense 1

Time Traveler
The first known use of hoi polloi was in 1837

Dictionary Entries Near hoi polloi

Cite this Entry

“Hoi polloi.” Merriam-Webster.com Dictionary, Merriam-Webster, https://www.merriam-webster.com/dictionary/hoi%20polloi. Accessed 29 Nov. 2022.

Last Updated: - Updated example sentences
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