Joy Jalosi sent this comment in yesterday in response to our Good Word peon “Dear Dr. Beard, Regarding peon: I always thought hoi-polloi meant UPPER-, not LOWER CLASS.”
One of the most common errors humans make in speaking and writing their language is to switch antonyms. How often have you heard people say things like this: “It’s too hot . . . I mean, cold, in here,” or: “I just love that black . . . I mean, white dress of hers.” Some of these switches stick, too, for cold and scald developed from the same Proto-Indo-European word, as did English black and French blanc “white”.
Joy probably has attached the wrong meaning to this word because most of the people she talks to make the same slip of the ear, too. The tendency to switch antonyms is aggravated in this case by the fact that hoi polloi sounds much like hoity-toity, which is a slur referring to the upper classes. In Greek, however, hoi means “the” and polloi means “many”, the source of the English prefix poly-. In English hoi polloi clearly means “the masses”.
Hoi polloi raises another question. I once participated in a debate with several readers in the wake of the Good Word hoi polloi over whether we need the word the with hoi polloi. It seemed redundant to them given the fact that hoi already means “the”. However, since I was writing in English when I used the phrase, the meaning of the Greek phrase was irrelevant. Hoi polloi in English means something like “the (unwashed) masses” today.