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Hoi polloi

Hoi polloi is a pejorative term for the public, or the general population (i.e., common folk). The term originates from Greek, and literally means ‘the many’. It is pronounced (hoy pell oy).

This term should not be confused with the phrase hoity toity which is a term used for those who act better than others or haughty.

It is a mass plural noun that does not change form.


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Originally it was a good term to mean the majority, rather than the minority. However, in the early nineteenth century it was a term used by the educated to mean the uneducated. It was originally written using Greek letter, so those without a classical education would not understand the characters. It was used by literary giants such as Lord Byron and James Fenimore Cooper.

The term’s popularity seems to have peaked in the 1940s, but has recently made a bit of a comeback.

Examples

Emma Rosenthal, a veteran Chicago performer, is a warm presence as poet Emma Lazarus, who mingles daily with the hoi polloi, teaching them English, while fearing what would happen if her wealthy parents were to know it. [NBC New York]

In this fourth and final episode of the second series of Liberty of London, we see a personal shopper picking out entire rails of clothes for her private clients; we see the private changing room overlooking Carnaby Street where the rich can try clothes on to their heart’s delight without having to share hanger space with the hoi polloi. [The Independent]

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Comments

  1. No comment on the weirdness of the fact that it means “the many” and is consistently prefaced by the word “the”? So most users are quite literally, if bilingually, saying “the the many”?

  2. Benjamin is correct: hoi in Ancient Greek is the masculine nominative plural definite article, meaning “the”; so when the NBC New York and The Independent journalists cited above write “the hoi polloi” they are, technically, committing a redundancy.

    • Ismo Koskinen says:

      Now this is interesting… Technically, you both are correct in your criticism of ‘the the many,’ but even the alternative – ‘the polloi’ – isn’t technically the correct translation. ‘Polloi’ won’t do, because it only means ‘indefinitely many’, so ‘the polloi’ would only mean ‘the indefinitely many.’ Now, actually – or technically, in a different sense than before – that would be correct, because the unwashed masses are typically thought of as indefinite in number. But this isn’t what oi polloi means: it refers to the many as a definite, as opposed to fuzzy, collective force or entity. So just like many dundants don’t amount to a single redundant, the indefinitely many don’t make a definite entity.

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