Hoi Polloi

In Ancient Greek, hoi polloi means ‘the many’, or ‘the majority’. In English, it means the masses or common people in a derogatory sense.

“When red-headed people are above a certain social grade their hair is auburn.” – Mark Twain

In the Ancient World however, it was not a derogatory term. It was used by Thucydides in his History of the Peloponnesian War. The term was used to praise the Athenian democracy, contrasting it with hoi oligoi, meaning ‘the few’; from which we get the word oligarchy.

Hoi polloi is sometimes used incorrectly to mean ‘upper class’, i.e. the exact opposite of its normal meaning. It seems likely that the confusion arose by association with the similar-sounding but otherwise unrelated word hoity-toity.


2 thoughts on “Hoi Polloi

  1. Henry, who generally disliked and was disliked by hoi polloi – a category which in his view expanded to include persons ranging from teenagers with boom boxes to the Dean of Studies of Hampden, who was independently wealthy and had a degree in American Studies from Yale – nonetheless had a genuine knack with poor people, simple people, country folk; he was despised by the functionaries of Hampden but admired by its janitors, its gardeners and cooks. Though he did not treat them as equals – he didn’t treat anyone as an equal, exactly – neither did he resort to the condescending friendliness of the wealthy. “I think we’re much more hypocritical about illness, and poverty, than were people in former ages,” I remember Julian saying once. “In America, the rich man tries to pretend that the poor man is his equal in every respect but money, which is simply not true. Does anyone remember Plato’s definition of Justice in the Republic? Justice, in a society, is when each level of a hierarchy works within its place and is content with it. A poor man who wishes to rise above his station is only making himself needlessly miserable. And the wise poor have always known this, the same as do the wise rich.”

    – Tartt, D. (1992). The Secret History. New York: Little, Brown.

  2. Exactly, just as the ancient Greek phrase, “hoi polloi saphoi, dynatoi, ischyroi” – “the many, the wise, the powerful, the strong,” would have been an oxymoron, because, by definition, the wise, powerful and strong were believed to be few, an observation predating our modern, bell-shaped curve by more than two millennia.

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