Hoi polloi (Greek: οἱ πολλοί, hoi polloi, "the many") is an expression from Greek that means the many or, in the strictest sense, the people. In English, it has been given a negative connotation to signify deprecation of the working class, commoners, the masses or common people in a derogatory or (more often today) ironic sense. Synonyms for hoi polloi, which also express the same or similar distaste for the common people felt by those who believe themselves to be superior, include "the plebeians" or "plebs", "the rabble", "the masses", "the dregs of society", "riffraff", "the herd", "the canaille", "the proles" (proletariat), and "peons".
The phrase probably became known to English scholars through 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 that one must be familiar with Greek and Latin in order to be considered well educated. The phrase was originally written in Greek letters. Knowledge of these languages served to set apart the speaker from hoi polloi in question, who were not similarly educated.
Pronunciation depends on the speaker:
- English speakers pronounce it /
- Ancient Greek speakers pronounced it [hoi polloi˨˦]. Double-λ is pronounced as geminated.
- Modern Greek speakers pronounce it [i poˈli] since in Modern Greek there is no voiceless glottal /h/ phoneme and οι is pronounced [i] (all Ancient Greek diphthongs are now pronounced as monophthongs). Greek Cypriots still pronounce the double-λ ([i polˈli]).
Some linguists argue that, given that hoi is a definite article, the phrase "the hoi polloi" is redundant, akin to saying "the the masses". Others argue that this is inconsistent with other English loanwords. The word "alcohol", for instance, derives from the Arabic al-kuhl, al being an article, yet "the alcohol" is universally accepted as good grammar.
Appearances in the nineteenth centuryEdit
There have been numerous uses of the term in 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 in Europe where he writes "After which the oi polloi are enrolled as they can find interest."
Lord Byron had, in fact, previously used the term in his letters and journal. In one journal entry, 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."
While Charles Darwin was at the University of Cambridge from 1828 to 1831, undergraduates used the term "hoi polloi" or "Poll" for those reading for an ordinary degree, the "pass degree". At that time only capable mathematicians would take the Tripos or honours degree. In his autobiography written in the 1870s, Darwin recalled that "By answering well the examination questions in Paley, by doing Euclid well, and by not failing miserably in Classics, I gained a good place among the οἱ πολλοί, or crowd of men who do not go in for honours."
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. In many versions of the vocal score, it is written as "οἱ πολλοί", likely confusing generations of amateur choristers who had not had the advantages of a British Public School education.
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 twentieth centuryEdit
The term has appeared in several films and radio programs. For example, one of the earliest short films from the Three Stooges, Hoi Polloi (1935), opens in 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 is bringing the rich down to their level and shaking their heads." A typical Stooges joke from the film is when someone addresses them as "gentlemen", and they look over their shoulders to see who is being addressed. The Three Stooges turn the tables on their hosts by calling them "hoi polloi" at the end.
At the English public school (i.e., private school) Haileybury and Imperial Service College, in the 1950s and '60s, grammar schoolboys from nearby Hertford were referred to as "oips", from "hoi polloi", to distinguish them from comprehensive and secondary modern schoolboys, the lowest of the low, who were called "oiks".
Carole King's TV special Really Rosie (based on Maurice Sendak's works) contains a song called "My Simple Humble Neighborhood", in which Rosie remembers those whom she's met over the years. In the process, she mentions the hoi polloi as well as the grand elite.
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 film Dead Poets Society (1989). 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 used the phrase "the hoi polloi", to demonstrate the mistake he warned against.
The term was also used in the comedy film Caddyshack (1980). 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 Elihu Smails (Spaulding's grandfather), with "Ahoy, polloi! Where did you come from, a scotch ad?" 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").
The Lovin' Spoonful's song "Jug Band Music" includes the line: "He tried to mooch a towel from the hoi polloi."
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 twenty-first centuryEdit
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."
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 fifth 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 changing 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."
List of twenty-first century commercial usesEdit
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".
- Hoi Polloi is the name of many businesses, including a restaurant in the United Kingdom, Hoipolloi a theatre company based in Cambridge in the United Kingdom, a dance group based in New York City, a woman's boutique in New Orleans, Louisiana, a Cafe-Bar in Agia Galini, Greece, a film crew in the United Kingdom, and a global telecommunications company.
- Oi Polloi is a Scottish anarcho-punk group, whose name is a pun on the term, and also Oi! music. Hoi Polloi was an alternative gospel band from New Zealand.
- Oi Polloi is the name of a menswear boutique founded in Manchester, with stores in Manchester and London.
- Hoi Polloi is a Marketing Communications blog by Angelo Fernando, a business writer covering technology, marketing, and interactive media.
- Hoi Polloi is the title of a literary journal produced by Dog Days Press in Massachusetts.
- Ahoi Polloi is the name of a well-known German cartoon blog.
The phrase has also been used in commercial works as the name a race of people.
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In its original and primary sense, hoi polloi is a term used by snobs or—more often—in mocking imitation of snobs.
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