The Hoi Polloi and the Distaste for the Masses

Thucydides - Hoi PolloiI know from experience that if I use an unusual word once, I will use it several other times. There is something about speaking and writing that is very mysterious. Indeed, as I’ve become a better writer, I’ve lost any sense that any of us know what we are doing. Control is something that only the very best poets exhibit, and in their cases, only because they write so very few words. Mostly, writing is a mess and the best we can hope for is clarity. But over the past few months, I’ve noticed the phrase “hoi polloi” used an excessive amount.

That in itself would not be worth commenting on. Words come and go. But in the past, when I heard people use the term, it was almost always used incorrectly. “Hoi polloi” means the common people. It comes from the Greek phrase “οἱ πολλοί,” which means quite literally “the many” although this is not that far from meaning “the mob” — if you want to go there. It’s been used in the English language for less than 200 years. I have my problems with it, and I don’t know of ever using the term — even in conversation. I mean that as no criticism of those who do use the term. On the plus side, it’s fun to say; on the minus side, its showy.

In History of the Peloponnesian War, a fifth century BCE manuscript by Athenian historian Thucydides, the phrase is used positively. In ancient Greek, it would seem that the ordinary people were not something to be sneered at.

But the big problem with the phrase is that it is traditionally used wrong to mean the rich or the “beautiful people.” And you can see why: it sounds like it. It’s easy enough for people to rationalize “hoi” as high and “polloi” to be anything you want. “High populace” perhaps? According to the Oxford Dictionary, this use of “hoi polloi” may have come about because of a confusion with the term “hoity-toity.” Regardless, what I find fascinating is that people are using it correctly, as though someone with a much bigger audience than I wrote an article pointing out that the phrase is commonly misused.

The Real Misuse of Hoi Polloi

Of course, the phrase is misused by pretty much everyone. In History of the Peloponnesian War, a fifth century BCE manuscript by Athenian historian Thucydides, the phrase is used positively. In ancient Greece, it would seem that the ordinary people were not something to be sneered at. But in English, “hoi polloi” is almost always used as a pejorative. Certainly my notion of the hoi polloi is people who watch Dancing With the Stars, or to be perfectly frank, just about every other “reality” television show I come upon, most definitely including the Academy Awards.

So “hoi polloi” is primarily a phrase that we use to look down on some group of people. If it weren’t for the phrase being so nailed down in Greek, I suspect that dictionaries would include “upper class” as a secondary definition — dictionaries being descriptive and not prescriptive. But in general, they don’t. Not that I care. I’d prefer to be done with the phrase except for its use in something like a Looney Tunes cartoon. Otherwise, bourgeois, middle class, workers, masses — they all work better. Imagine this great line from Monty Python and the Holy Grail, “Supreme executive power derives from a mandate from the hoi polloi, not from some farcical aquatic ceremony.” Doesn’t really work, does it?

INTERCAL Is the Most Awesome Programming Language Ever

Don Woods - INTERCALAh, graduate school! There is much that I miss about it. Most people think that graduate school is hard work, but that’s not really true. Looking back on it, it seems like it was a lot of fooling around. As a physics undergrad, I worked very hard — harder than I ever did in my life. But graduate school was different. At least it was for me. I’m a creative guy. I didn’t have a hard time coming up with things to do. And that left a lot of time to do other stuff. That included things like INTERCAL — a subject I will come back to soon.

It was in graduate school that I really developed my love of writing. I published an underground satirical newspaper called The Splinter Post, which made fun of the schools official weekly, The Center Post. It was hugely successful. I also published a straight news underground called Dysentery, which got a department head fired. (I feel kind of bad about that, because looking back, I think he was in the right.) But such is the nature of grad school. Unless you are someone who really doesn’t belong, graduate school gives you lots of time to play. And damn it: play is good!

In 1972, there were two similarly inclined graduate students at Princeton: Don Woods and James Lyon. This was a time when people were creating all kinds of programming languages. Computers were becoming a thing that wasn’t so outside the mainstream. I remember television commercials for Control Data Institute. Oh, it was an exciting time!

But Woods and Lyon noticed something: programming languages sucked! Understand, these are guys who understand computers. They are still programming with computer cards. They know what the stack is. And they are seeing these high level languages pile up and they are just ridiculous. So they wrote INTERCAL, which is short for “Compiler Language With No Pronounceable Acronym.” And as I write this, I am laughing hysterically. This is making fun of languages like APL (A Programming Langage) and the absurd COBOL (Common Business-Oriented Language). But Woods and Lyon had much more in mind than just making fun of the overuse of acronyms.

James Lyon - INTERCALINTERCAL is a real language. It is available on the computer that you are using right now. I guarantee it. And it is designed to annoy. For example, the compiler just ignores anything that it doesn’t understand. Normally, compilers complain. But not INTERCAL! It’s very easy going. As a result, a comment is any line of code that it doesn’t understand. But you have to be really careful, because if it does understand the code it will compile it. And then where will you be?

Well, that’s kind of the point. INTERCAL is a language that is made to drive you crazy. For example, if you make an error in your code, INERCAL will just ignore it and not tell you. It really is deliciously evil.

Introducing INTERCAL

I’m sure by now, you want to see some INTERCAL programming. Who wouldn’t?! I mean, this is the greatest programming language ever written. So let’s consider the standard “Hello, world!” program. In BASIC, this is a single line program:


10 print "Hello, world!"

Doing this is a tad more complicated with INTERCAL. Here is its “Hello, world!” program:

DO ,1 <- #13
PLEASE DO ,1 SUB #1 <- #238
DO ,1 SUB #2 <- #108
DO ,1 SUB #3 <- #112
DO ,1 SUB #4 <- #0
DO ,1 SUB #5 <- #64
DO ,1 SUB #6 <- #194
DO ,1 SUB #7 <- #48
PLEASE DO ,1 SUB #8 <- #22
DO ,1 SUB #9 <- #248
DO ,1 SUB #10 <- #168
DO ,1 SUB #11 <- #24
DO ,1 SUB #12 <- #16
DO ,1 SUB #13 <- #162
PLEASE READ OUT ,1
PLEASE GIVE UP

Did I forget to mention that there is a PLEASE operator? In some implementations of INTERCAL, the compiler will do nothing if you don't include enough PLEASE commands. And if you include too many, it will consider you obsequious and still won't do anything. Because what's the point? Let's face it: you suck.

I hope never to have to do anymore software development. But if I do, I think I'm going to demand that it all be done in INTERCAL. It's my kind of language.

Morning Music: Hello in There

John Price - Hello in ThereAfter all these years, John Prine’s song “Hello in There” still gives me chills. In fact, it can bring me to tears if I’m feeling a little bit down. It was off his first album, John Prine, which is still my favorite of his albums, although I’ll admit that maybe it isn’t his best album. It’s hard to say. Every song is great. He does have a tendency to break momentum between chorus and verse. But it is a smaller problem with “Hello in There.”

The issue of old people being forgotten in our society is an important one. It is the result of our economic problems — the devaluation of work and expertise. I’ve seen it a lot in high tech and I have to admit to being very pleased to be out of it. If you look at old coders — people who cut their teeth of COBOL and FORTRAN — they know everything. Unlike the 20-somethings who can code the most recent fad programming language for little money, the old ones understand the whole context. They understand that it still all comes down to putting bits on silicon and pushing them through a CPU.

But who cares?! I’m the youngest person I know whose coded assembly language. In the modern world, we create systems so we don’t need people who understand the big picture. We need people who are “human resources” so that one “human resource” can be plugged into where another “human resource” used to be. And in that world, we sure don’t care about old people. It isn’t that we are cruel. We don’t know there is anyone worthwhile to say “hello in there” to.

Of course, there is another side of this. I go out of my way to talk to old people. But sometimes, they are so starved for conversation, that they don’t know how to have a conversation — they just perform a repetitive monologue. I don’t blame them — it’s our fault. But it’s frustrating. Still, I think Prine is right:

So if you’re walking down the street sometime
And spot some hollow ancient eyes
Please don’t just pass them by and stare
As if you didn’t care, say, “Hello in there, hello.”

Anniversary Post: Articles of Confederation

Articles of Confederation - Slavery!On this day in 1781, the Continental Congress adopted the Articles of Confederation. They were worthless. But you can see why conservatives love them. Basically, the combined government — the Confederation Congress — could ask for money from the states, but they had no power to enforce such a request. It reminds me of how modern conservatives think employment should operate: we all be nice to the rich and they will hire the rest of us and give us proper compensation.

I’m constantly amazed that conservatives think that liberals are naive. The whole conservative mentality is based on the idea that people will just do “what’s right” — as though that something that we all agree on. People have an amazing ability to justify why whatever helps them will be best. And what history has shown very clearly is that people will pay their taxes only when they are forced. And it does not matter how low those taxes are. That was one of Ayn Rand’s big claims was that if you just got the government small enough people would voluntarily pay their taxes. But she was a thoroughly modern intellectual — in the sense of never actually reading anything that disagreed with her except for the explicit purpose of attacking it.

But the main reason that conservatives hate the federal government and think that local government is always better is because you can be much more powerful on the local level. Look at Frankly Curious: it is tiny, but like Yertle the Turtle, I am ruler of all I see! And what is it that these conservatives really want? Is it low taxes and regulations? Not really! It’s having slaves. And I assure you that if every state in the United States became independent, there are states that would bring back slavery.

But imagine if the Articles of Confederation had not been replaced. What would have happened? I can’t say for sure, but I think history guides us to a fairly obvious conclusion. The states would begin to have wars. And eventually, the greatest warrior would have brought all the colonies together. So it would have been like what we got, with one exception: it would have been an autocracy. There would have been no Bill of Rights. And of course, the Articles of Confederation would have been a thing of the past. But conservatives don’t think that far ahead. That would have been King Andrew Jackson. Or perhaps just King George, because once the colonies were fighting, it wouldn’t have been hard to defeat them.

The Articles of Confederation were a joke. But they are what conservatives want. Because local governance is always better. I mean, the federal government does terrible things like make people pay their taxes. And the local government only does things like enslave people.