will not hear of

Hoi polloi

[hoi puh-loi]

Hoi polloi (Greek: οἱ πολλοί), an expression meaning "the many" (literally: "the citizens") in Greek is used in English to denote "the masses" or "the people", usually in a derogatory sense. For example, "I've secured a private box for the play so we don't have to watch the show with hoi polloi." Synonyms for "hoi polloi" include "...commoners, great unwashed, minions, multitude, plebeians, proletariat, rabble, rank and file, riffraff, the common people, the herd, the many, the masses, the peons, the working class".

The phrase became known to English scholars probably from Pericles' Funeral Oration, as mentioned in Thucydides' History of the Peloponnesian War. Pericles uses it in a positive way when praising the Athenian democracy, contrasting it with hoi oligoi, "the few" (Greek: οἱ ὀλίγοι, see also oligarchy)

Its current English usage originated in the early 19th century, a time when it was generally accepted one must know Greek and Latin in order to be well educated. The phrase was originally written in Greek letters. Knowledge of these languages would serve to set apart the speaker from the common people who did not have that education.

The phrase has been the source of controversy over its correct usage. There has been debate as to whether it is correct usage to include the English article "the" in front of the phrase, as is commonly done.

Questions on usage

Since "hoi" means "the", it might be said that the common usage of the hoi polloi contains a redundancy. However, this latter usage is well-established and it is often the case that phrases borrowed from other languages become treated as single words in English. The Chicago Manual of Style considers the usage "the hoi polloi" to be the standard usage. (Merriam) Webster's Dictionary of English Usage says:

When hoi polloi was used by writers who had actually been educated in Greek, it was invariably preceded by "the". Perhaps writers such as Dryden and Byron understood that English and Greek are two different languages, and that, whatever its literal meaning in Greek, hoi does not mean "the" in English. There is, in fact, no such independent word as hoi in English — there is only the term hoi polloi, which functions not as two words but as one, the sense of which is basically "commoners" or "rabble." In idiomatic English, it is no more redundant to say "the hoi polloi" than it is to say "the rabble," and most writers who use the term continue to precede it with *the* ...

Other defenders of using "the" in front of the phrase cite examples such as "Alcohol" or "Algebra" or "Algorithm" which are Arabic-derived words with the "Al" denoting "the." Detractors of this argument point out that if this were the case, that "hoi polloi" would become a single word "hoipolloi" or hyphenated "hoi-polloi."

Since the 1950s the phrase has been misused to refer to the upper class, which is the opposite of its actual meaning.

It has been speculated that this usage has arisen due to similarity between the phrase "hoi polloi" and "high" or "hoity toity."


The reason that the English transliteration of the phrase is "Hoi Polloi" and not "Oi Polloi" as one would presume from a visual inspection of the Greek letters, is the spiritus asper on top of iota (῾), which denotes an initial "h" sound (the diacritics are always placed on top of the second letter of a diphthong). In Modern Greek, the h is no longer pronounced and the diacritics of polytonic orthography have been dropped in favour of monotonic orthography, thus the phrase is written "οι πολλοί".


The phrase has three different pronunciations:

English speakers pronounce it HOY puh-LOY.

Ancient Greek speakers pronounced it ). Notice that double-λ is pronounced as such and that Ancient Greek prosody has disappeared.

Modern Greek speakers pronounce it ee poe-LEE, since in Modern Greek there is no aspiration and οι is pronounced "ee" (all Ancient Greek diphthongs are now pronounced as monophthongs). Greek Cypriots still pronounce the double-λ ().

Appearances in the 19th Century

There have been numerous uses of the term in the English Literature. James Fenimore Cooper, author of The Last of the Mohicans, is often credited with making the first recorded usage of the term in English. The first recorded use by Cooper occurs in his 1837 work Gleanings from Europe where he writes "After which the oi polloi are enrolled as they can find interest.

In actuality Lord Byron previously used the term in his letters and journal. In one letter, dated 24 November 1813, Byron writes "I have not answered W. Scott's last letter,—but I will. I regret to hear from others, that he has lately been unfortunate in pecuniary involvements. He is undoubtedly the Monarch of Parnassus, and the most English of bards. I should place Rogers next in the living list (I value him more as the last of the best school) —Moore and Campbell both third—Southey and Wordsworth and Coleridge—the rest, οι πολλοί [hoi polloi in Greek]—thus:— (see image reproduced on this page).

Byron also wrote an 1821 entry in his journal "... one or two others, with myself, put on masks, and went on the stage with the 'oi polloi.

W. S. Gilbert used the term in 1882 when he wrote the libretto of the comic opera Iolanthe. In Act I, the following exchange occurs between a group of disgruntled fairies who are arranging to elevate a lowly shepherd to the peerage, and members of the House of Lords who will not hear of such a thing.

PEERS: Our lordly style
You shall not quench
With base canaille!

FAIRIES: (That word is French.)

PEERS: Distinction ebbs
Before a herd
Of vulgar plebs!

FAIRIES: (A Latin word.)

PEERS: 'Twould fill with joy,
And madness stark
The hoi polloi!

FAIRIES: (A Greek remark.)

Gilbert's parallel use of canaille, plebs (plebeians), and hoi polloi makes it clear that the term is derogatory of the lower classes. It's also worth noting that in many versions of the vocal score, it is written as "οἱ πολλοί", confusing generations of amateur choristers.

John Dryden used the phrase in his Essay of Dramatick Poesie, published in 1668. Dryden spells the phrase with Greek letters, but the rest of the sentence is in English (and he does precede it with "the").

Appearances in the 20th Century

The term has appeared in several film and radio programs. One of the earliest short films from the Three Stooges was a 1935 film titled Hoi Polloi. The film opens on an exclusive restaurant where two wealthy gentlemen are arguing whether heredity or environment is more important in shaping character. They make a bet and pick on nearby trashmen (the Stooges) to prove their theory. At the conclusion of three months in training, the Stooges attend a dinner party, where they thoroughly embarrass the professors.

The University of Dayton's Don Morlan says, "The theme in these shorts of the Stooges against the rich," says Morlan, "is bringing the rich down to their level and shaking their heads." A typical Stooges joke from the film would be when someone addressed them as "Gentlemen," they would look over their shoulders to see who was meant. Three Stooges turn the tables on their hosts by calling them "hoi polloi" at the end.

The term continues to be used in contemporary writing. In his 1983 introduction to Robert Anton Wilson's Prometheus Rising, Israel Regardie writes, "Once I was even so presumptuous as to warn (Wilson) in a letter that his humor was much too good to waste on hoi polloi who generally speaking would not understand it and might even resent it.

The term "hoi polloi" was used in a dramatic scene in the 1989 movie Dead Poets Society. In this scene, Professor Keating speaks negatively about the use of the article "the" in front of the phrase:

Keating: This is battle, boys. War! Your souls are at a critical juncture. Either you will succumb to the hoi polloi and the fruit will die on the vine—or you will triumph as individuals. It may be a coincidence that part of my duties are to teach you about Romanticism, but let me assure you that I take the task quite seriously. You will learn what this school wants you to learn in my class, but if I do my job properly, you will also learn a great deal more. You will learn to savor language and words because they are the stepping stones to everything you might endeavor to do in life and do well. A moment ago I used the term 'hoi polloi.' Who knows what it means? Come on, Overstreet, you twirp. (laughter) Anderson, are you a man or a boil?

Anderson shakes his head "no", but Meeks raises his hands and speaks: "The hoi polloi. Doesn't it mean the herd?"

Keating: Precisely, Meeks. Greek for the herd. However, be warned that, when you say "the hoi polloi" you are actually saying "the the herd." Indicating that you too are "hoi polloi".

Keating's tone makes clear that he considers this statement to be an insult. He himself had used the phrase "the hoi polloi.'", so he also makes the same mistake he warned against.

The term also used in the 1980 comedy Caddyshack. In a rare moment of cleverness, Spaulding Smails greets Danny Noonan as he arrives for the christening of The Flying Wasp, the boat belonging to Judge Smails (Spaulding's grandfather), with "Ahoy, polloi!" This is particularly ironic, because Danny has just finished mowing the Judge's lawn, and arrives overdressed, wearing a sailboat captain's outfit (as the girl seated next to him points out, Danny "looks like Dick Cavett").

Todd Rundgren's band Utopia offers up a song titled "Hoi Polloi" on the 1980 album Deface the Music, in which all of the songs are written and performed in the style of The Beatles.

In the song Risingson on Massive Attack's Mezzanine album, the singer apparently appeals to his company to leave the club they're in, deriding the common persons' infatuation with them, and implying that he's about to slide into antisocial behaviour:

Toy-like people make me boy-like (...)
And everything you got, hoi polloi like
Now you're lost and you're lethal
And now's about the time you gotta leave all
These good people...dream on.

In an episode of This American Life, radio host Ira Glass uses the term hoi polloi while relaying a story about a woman who believes the letter 'q' should occur later in the alphabet. He goes on to say that "Q does not belong in the middle of the alphabet where it is, with the hoi polloi of the alphabet, with your 'm' 'n' and 'p'. Letters that will just join any word for the asking."

The term was used in a first-series episode (The New Vicar, aired 5 November 1990) of the British sitcom Keeping Up Appearances. The main character, Hyacinth Bucket, gets into a telephone argument with a bakery employee. When the employee abruptly hangs up in frustration, Hyacinth disparagingly refers to him as "hoi polloi." This is in keeping with her character; she looks down upon those she considers to be of lesser social standing, including working-class people.

Appearances in the 21st Century

The August 14, 2001 episode of CNN's Larry King Live program included a discussion about whether the sport of polo was an appropriate part of the image of the British Royal Family. Joining King on the program were "best-selling biographer and veteran royal watcher Robert Lacey" and Kitty Kelley, author of the book The Royals. Their discussions focused on Prince Charles and his son Prince William.

Lacey said, "There is another risk that I see in polo. Polo is a very nouveau riche, I think, rather vulgar game. I can say that having played it myself, and I don't think it does Prince Charles's image, or, I dare say, this is probably arrogant of me, his spirit any good. I don't think it is a good thing for him to be involved in. I also, I'm afraid, don't think [polo] is a good thing for [Charles] to be encouraging his sons to get involved in. It is a very "playboy" set. We saw Harry recently all night clubbing, and why not, some might say, playing polo down in the south of Spain. I think the whole polo syndrome is something that the royal family would do very well to get uninvolved with as soon as possible.

King turned the question to Kelley, saying, "Kitty, it is kind of hoi polloi, although it is an incredible sport in which, I have been told, that the horse is 80 percent of the game, the rider 20 percent. But it is a great sport to watch. But it is hoi polloi isn't it?"

To which Kelley replied, "Yes, I do agree with Robert. The time is come and gone for the royals to be involved with polo. I mean it is – it just increases that dissipated aristo-image that they have, and it is too bad to encourage someone like Prince William to get involved.

This conversation associating polo with the hoi polloi is surprising. On a stone tablet next to a polo ground in Gilgit, north of Kashmir, near the fabled silk route from China to the West is inscribed the verse "Let other people play at other things — the King of Games is still the Game of Kings". Polo is still referred to as the Game of Kings. The modern sport has had difficulty grappling with the traditional social and economic exclusivity commonly associated with a game that is inevitably expensive when played at a serious level. Still, it is clear that they are using hoi polloi in its correct meaning as Lacey calls the sport "vulgar" and Kelley says that the time for royals to be involved in polo has "come and gone".

The term also appears in the 2003 Broadway musical Wicked, where it is used by the characters Elphaba and Glinda to refer to the many inhabitants of the Emerald City: "... I wanna be in this hoi polloi ..."

Jack Cafferty, a CNN anchorman, was caught misusing the term. On 9 December 2004 he retracted his statement, saying "And hoi-polloi refers to common people, not those rich morons that are evicting those two red-tail hawks (ph) from that 5th Avenue co-op. I misused the word hoi-polloi. And for that I humbly apologize.

New media and new inventions have also been described as being by or for the hoi polloi. Bob Garfield, co-host of NPR's On the Media program, 8 November 2005, used the phrase in reference to evolving practices in the media, especially Wikipedia, "The people in the encyclopedia business, I understand, tend to sniff at the wiki process as being the product of the mere hoi polloi. The blog referred to the $100 PC project as being for kids and the hoi polloi. The post went on to refer to the correct usage of the phrase, "*Although we at are using the Greek phrase hoi polloi in its correct meaning of "the common people," rather than the incorrect but more hoi-polloish meaning of "the hoity-toities," "the fancy-living types," the "ravenous blood-sucking leeches fattening their stomachs on the backs of the masses," or "THE ARISTOCRATS!," it does not, in and of itself, indicate that we are insufferable smarty-pants. That may be established by independent means.

Duran Duran lead singer and lyricist Simon le Bon has included the phrase in the band's song Skin Divers from their November release Red Carpet Massacre": Fighting on the shore, The hoi polloi want more, Howling bloody murder, but it's nothing just a murmur.

List of 21st century commercial uses

The phrase Hoi Polloi has been used to promote products and businesses. As described by the Pittsburgh Dish, the name "Hoi Polloi" may be chosen to indicate that the brand or service will appeal to the "common people".

The phrase has also been used in commercial works as the name a race of people.


External links

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