hoi polloi

Printable Version
Pronunciation: hoy-pê-loy Hear it!

Part of Speech: Noun, mass (no plural)

Meaning: The masses of people, ordinary folk, the Plain Janes and Joe Sixpacks of the world who live life in the slow lane.

Notes: It is common in English to refer to the masses as the hoi polloi even though, as today's History will show, hoi means "the" in Greek. The hoi is not redundant in English because hoi does not mean "the" in English; it is simply the first syllable of a word that should be spelled as one. When we borrow a word from another language, the grammar of that language does not come with it. The fact that hoi means "the" in Greek is as irrelevant to English as the fact that the al in algebra means "the" in Arabic.

In Play: Resist the temptation to confuse today's word with the adjective, hoity-toity "pretentious, affecting gentility". Hoi polloi is slightly less deprecating: "Tommy Beamer drives around in his hoity-toity BMW just to impress the hoi polloi like us." Hoi polloi is often used as a contrast to individualism: "Biff Wellington likes to wear a tie to work to distinguish himself from the hoi polloi."

Word History: Today's word is the Greek phrase hoi polloi "the many," where polloi is the plural of polus "many". This is the same word we use as the prefix poly- in words like polyglot "speaker of many languages" and polygon "figure with many angles". The same root provided Latin plenus "full" that lies at the base of English plenty. This root also came directly into English as full and, with a suffix -k, emerged as another word meaning "hoi polloi"—folk. (The voice that rose above the hoi polloi to suggest today's Good Word belongs to Riutaro F. Aida, a Senior Lexiterian in the Agora.)

Dr. Goodword,

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