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The change in meaning of 'hoi polloi'
May 31, 2012
The phrase hoi polloi has amazingly changed its meaning entirely.
It was a term used by Greek historians and meant, literally, 'the masses'. It was written 'oi polloi' but there was an aspiration at the start of oi which was represented by h in English. In early C19th England any gentleman of standing would have known his Greek and so this phrase was borrowed into English. It had a somewhat derogatory sneer to it in English that was not there in Greek. It stayed this way with an occasional argument about whether 'the hoi polloi' was a legitimate expression since in Greek hoi meant 'the' so it was, in a sense, a reduplication.
About 20 or 30 years ago by our reckoning it was suddenly being used to mean 'the rich and famous', quite the opposite of its original meaning. Amusingly Prince Charles was criticised for playing polo because it was too hoi polloi. The only explanation on offer is that for a population that knew no Greek the initial syllable reminded them of the word 'hoity-toity' and the shift in direction was triggered by that similar sound. At the moment the dictionary is fighting the good fight for the original meaning with a nod to the new meaning in a usage note, but we can see the time coming when frequency demands the reverse.
In this case we can't see how both meanings can coexist.
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(Image courtesy of Pixabay)
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