ˈhi(-ə)r-ˌär- How to pronounce hierarchy (audio)
plural hierarchies
: a division of angels
: 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
: church government by a hierarchy
: a body of persons in authority
: the classification of a group of people according to ability or to economic, social, or professional standing
also : the group so classified
: 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.

Example Sentences

… 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 As Patrick Mahomes and Josh Allen settle into the new hierarchy of NFL quarterbacks and some of the old guard fade away, another crop of replacements is gearing up to take their place. Dave Birkett, Detroit Free Press, 19 Oct. 2022 The prosecution wants to call Claire Headley, a prominent former church member, to testify as an expert about the church’s hierarchy and practices. Gene Maddaus, Variety, 3 Oct. 2022 These qualities are unique to humans, and such self-recognition creates a hierarchy of values and a range of responses. Dominic Green, WSJ, 16 Sep. 2022 But his vision, in which the same status is paid for, would introduce a different kind of hierarchy. Kyle Chayka, The New Yorker, 3 Nov. 2022 Östlund takes care to attend to this broad spectrum — to a worker class that’s just as much of a hierarchy as the world from which their guests are taking respite — in order to set up and sustain a drawn-out, satirical comedy of manners. K. Austin Collins, Rolling Stone, 7 Oct. 2022 Beauty creates a certain kind of hierarchy in all social situations. Elsa Keslassy, Variety, 23 May 2022 The Ohio Supreme court’s website is hosting the information online and the site features this flow chart of the hierarchy of courts in Ohio. Laura Johnston, cleveland, 10 May 2022 After all, how can a company grow without a talent development program at all levels of the hierarchy? Jason Richmond, Forbes, 6 May 2022 See More

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.

Word History


Middle English ierarchie rank or order of holy beings, from Anglo-French jerarchie, from Medieval Latin hierarchia, from Late Greek, from Greek hierarchēs

First Known Use

14th century, in the meaning defined at sense 1

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

Dictionary Entries Near hierarchy

Cite this Entry

“Hierarchy.” Merriam-Webster.com Dictionary, Merriam-Webster, https://www.merriam-webster.com/dictionary/hierarchy. Accessed 28 Nov. 2022.

Kids Definition



hi·​er·​ar·​chy ˈhī-(ə-)ˌrär-kē How to pronounce hierarchy (audio)
plural hierarchies
: a ruling body especially of clergy organized into ranks
: an arrangement into a series according to rank
: persons or things arranged in ranks or classes

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