Sunday, April 23, 2006

(The) Hoi Polloi

I love this expression, not only due to how it rolls off the tongue, but also because my grandmother used to use it as one of her -isms. Upon reading the phrase last week I was provoked to find out what its origins were. And both the OED and Answers.com reveal the same thing: It is a Greek term meaning "the masses." Why then did my grandmother use it to mean high society, with an ironic touch (You don't want to be part of the hoi polloi, do you?)

About this point Answers.com has this to say: Hoi polloi is sometimes incorrectly used to mean “the elite,” possibly because it is reminiscent of high and mighty or because it sounds like hoity-toity.

While the literal meaning of the word is "the masses" I found it is not just my grandmother who used the term in its perverted usage. John McGahern in "Amongst Women" (132) writes, "Is she hoi polloi?" referring to the family's de facto sister-in-law. As the inquiring sister is from a poor farm in rural Ireland, I don't think she is accusing the woman of being common, but rather of being tosh.

I don't think the phonetic similarity provided by Answers.com really seems to cut it though. Maybe "the masses" came to refer to the indescript mass of artistocracy? Who knows.

3 comments:

Yehuda said...

I think Greek sounds so sofisticated in English, that many of twn pollwn assume it must refer to sofisticated people as well. Jokes on you, O polloi.

Alan said...

I think that the word that you want is "hoity-toity." It means more or less what you want it to mean and even sounds sort of like your old word "hoi polloi."

Jose said...

I concur with Yehuda.