A Word for Wednesday: Hoi polloi

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This week’s word for Wednesday is a strange one indeed. A word of 17th Century Greek origin and whose meaning is widely misused. The word… well err… two words… is ‘Hoi polloi’. Don’t worry if you haven’t heard of it, and let’s de-mystify this expression a little.

Let’s start by dismissing the common misconception that ‘Hoi polloi’ refers to the upper class of people or a higher social order. This simply isn’t true as 'Hoi polloi' translates literally to mean ‘the many’ or ‘the masses’. There are a few other popular age-old terms used to express a similar meaning, these are mainly used as pejoratives: plebs (or plebians), peons, riff-raff and so on.

Apparently the word crept into modern English usage sometime in the 19th century, and was almost always written in Greek. The irony is that unless one was familiar with Greek and Latin they were considered uneducated, so on paper, 'Hoi polloi' was a derogatory term for those who were ‘too uneducated’ to even understand what it meant.

Seemingly this is an elitist term whose meaning has been perverted during its transition into public use. From one plebeian to another, enjoy the rest of your week and I hope this has cleared things up.

27 Mar 2013
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