I 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.
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?