hoi polloi

plural noun

hoi pol·​loi ˌhȯi-pə-ˈlȯi How to pronounce hoi polloi (audio)
: the general populace : masses
: 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.

Examples of hoi polloi in a Sentence

Recent Examples on the Web Opting for off-list treats such as eel was a lavish gesture that telegraphed a sense of superiority and disdain for the hoi polloi. The Editors, Robb Report, 28 Mar. 2024 Tickets are $3 for students and $5 for the hoi polloi. Phil Plait, Discover Magazine, 5 Nov. 2010 Both of the previous strikes I was involved with had tension between the East Coast and the West Coast guilds, between showrunners and the hoi polloi, the staffers, all that stuff. Lesley Goldberg, The Hollywood Reporter, 26 May 2023 The store announced its opening with good news for the hot dog hoi polloi: 50 cent hot dogs, compared with Papaya King’s 75. Alex Traub, New York Times, 24 May 2023 Last year, the CLEWI, as Forbes calls it, was up 10.1%, the most since 2008 and nearly twice the 5.3% rate of the hoi polloi index, otherwise known as the Consumer Price Index. Scott Burns, Dallas News, 8 Apr. 2022 Yet everyone who faithfully (hate) watches the Oscars knows that there’s always a lot going on other than demigods doling out awards to one another or smiling for the hoi polloi at home. Manohla Dargis, New York Times, 13 Mar. 2023 Or, at the very least — they could be glorified political censors, a kind of cleanup crew that sits between the hoi polloi putting their private parts on Zoom and the respectable progressives who put their capital behind the enterprise. Michael Brendan Dougherty, National Review, 4 Feb. 2022 When the Academy of Motion Pictures Arts and Sciences announced that a special Fan Favorite movie would be selected by Twitter this year, many saw it as a move on their part to toss crumbs to the MCU-loving hoi polloi. Vulture, 20 Feb. 2022

These examples are programmatically compiled from various online sources to illustrate current usage of the word 'hoi polloi.' Any opinions expressed in the examples do not represent those of Merriam-Webster or its editors. Send us feedback about these examples.

Word History


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 20 Apr. 2024.

Last Updated: - Updated example sentences
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