Monday, September 13, 2010

Word For The Day: hoi polloi

hoi polloi - hoy-puh-loy, noun.  1) the common people; the masses.  Etymology: from the Greek "the many".
Author's Note: An extremely interesting word for a variety of reasons.  First of all, it should never be preceded by "the" (despite the fact that this mistake has been repeated over and over again by many an esteemed 20th century writer) because the literal Greek translation of hoi is "the".  That having been said, it is common usage to precede hoi polloi (or any other noun I know of) with "the", and you will virtually never see it without.  Next, please note that this phrase has acquired over time a derogatory connotation, referring to an incorrect opinion held by the masses, as in: “The hoi polloi may think that Fitzgerald is a great director, but those who know about film realize that his work is essentially commercial.”  Interestingly even this quote displays an ambivalence in the meaning of the phrase (in addition to the erroneous use of "the" again) - that being whether "hoi polloi" here actually refers to the illiterate masses or perhaps to the illiterate elite.  Which brings us to the final twist: yours truly admits to being in the (probably overwhelming) majority of folks who actually use the phrase to refer to high society or the elite - which is the opposite of its literal translation!  I've read some speculation about how that came about (and you might want to as well), but I'm out of space.  G'day!