All Greek to Me

One of the great strengths and joys of English is its diverse linguistic origins and the abandon with which it incorporates words from other languages. As David Crystal puts it in The Story of English in 100 Words, “English is a vacuum-cleaner of a language,” so much so that “several hundred languages have contributed to its lexical character.”

However, the problem with loanwords, as these borrowings are called, is that their meaning can be lost on those who do not know their language of origin. A classic example is “hoi polloi,” a Greek term that The Oxford English Dictionary defines as “the majority; the masses.” It has derogatory connotations, much like the Latinate word “plebeian,” and when it entered our language, it only underscored the gap between the Greek- and Latin-trained elite and the poorly educated multitude it compassed. In time, the marginalization of classical languages meant that “hoi polloi” was increasingly used by those who did not know its linguistic antecedents. And while dictionaries can help to fill this void, not everyone consults a dictionary.

As a result, “hoi polloi” acquired a meaning diametrically opposed to what its Greek and initial English users understood. For many today, perhaps because of its similarity to “hoity toity,” denoting haughtiness, “hoi polloi” describes not the masses but the few what the Occupy Wall Street movement might have called the 1 percent. Thus, fully 28 percent of the usage panel of The American Heritage Dictionary accepts the following sentence: “The luxurious sets in the movie evoke the lifestyle of the hoi polloi in the early 20th century.” And though Bryan A. Garner, in Garner’s Modern American Usage, decries the “growing misuse of hoi polloi to refer to the elite,” such protests are themselves a testament to the pervasiveness of this inversion. And so, in Jerry Oppenheimer’s Crazy Rich: Power, Scandal and Tragedy Inside the Johnson & Johnson Dynasty, we find this sentence: “Robert changed Evangeline’s young life overnight; she went from upstate girl to uptown girl, the belle of New Brunswick society although she was never fully accepted by the city’s hoi polloi, and couldn’t have cared less.” The moral of the story: use “hoi polloi” advisedly.

By way of footnote, long lost on most users is the fact that “hoi” is a definite article, equivalent to “the” in English, which renders “the hoi polloi” redundant. But this did not appear to trouble the great 17th-century English poet, playwright, and literary critic John Dryden, the first known adopter of the term, nor should it trouble you!