hoi polloi

“Hoi polloi” comes from Greek, and means, literally, “the many” or “the people.” In English, it has a negative connotation to signify the masses, the plebeians, the rabble, the riffraff, and the proles (proletariat).

In his Funeral Oration, as mentioned in Thucydides’ History of the Peloponnesian War, Pericles uses the phrase in a positive way when praising the Athenian democracy, contrasting it with hoi oligoi, “the few.”

In English, the earliest known example in print is a 1668 essay by John Dryden, in which he uses Greek letters for the phrase. It was generally accepted that one must be familiar with Greek and Latin to be considered well educated. Knowledge of these languages served to set apart the speaker from the hoi polloi in question, who were not similarly educated. At the University of Cambridge, in the early 1800s, undergraduates used the term “hoi polloi” or “Poll” for those reading for an ordinary degree, the “pass degree.”

There have been numerous uses of the term in English literature. For example, Lord Byron used it in his letters and journal. For another, Thomas De Quincey uses the term in Confessions of an English Opium-Eater. W. S. Gilbert used it in 1882 when he wrote the libretto of the comic opera Iolanthe. Gilbert’s parallel use of canaille, plebs (plebeians), and hoi polloi makes it clear that the term is derogatory of the lower classes.

The term has appeared in several films and radio programs. For example, one of the earliest short films from the Three Stooges was Hoi Polloi (1935). The phrase was also used in a dramatic scene in the film Dead Poets Society (1989). 

In an episode aired November 1990, the main character of the British sitcom Keeping Up Appearances, Hyacinth Bucket, gets into a telephone argument with a bakery employee and disparagingly refers to him as “hoi polloi.” Her character looks down upon those she considers to be of lesser social standing, including working-class people.

Some people mistakenly believe hoi polloi to mean “the upper classes.” The Chicago Daily Herald, in October 1984, reported “Brent Musburger, whose talks with WGN are continuing, was among the hoi polloi in the rich seats.” This usage is possibly influenced by a mistaken association with “hoity-toity.”

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