In most of her speeches, and in her debate last week with Joe Biden, Sarah Palin seems to be speaking directly to the “hoi polloi.”

That previous sentence is likely to elicit outrage from two places: the people who believe that it wrongly implies that Palin associates herself with the upper class; and the people who think that it’s an insult to her constituency.

Sorry, but neither is the intent. The politics notwithstanding, it does invite a discussion of “hoi polloi.”

“Hoi polloi” is a Greek term—“hoi” for “the” and “polloi” for “many”—and it’s been used in English since at least the 1600s to mean “the masses.” (It’s not, however, directly related to the roots of our words “poll” and “politics.”)

Maybe because it sounds like “hoity-toity,” a lot of the time it’s misused to mean what otherwise might be called “the aristocracy.” Webster’s Third New International Dictionary, Unabridged is the only major dictionary to recognize “elite” as a legitimate, albeit secondary, definition of “hoi polloi.”

More often, “hoi polloi” is used somewhat derogatorily, akin to “the great unwashed.” There’s some irony in using a $100 phrase to refer to people who may or may not understand what they are being called. Indeed, there’s some indication that “hoi polloi” came into popular use in the late 1800s as a way for people who were educated—which usually meant they knew Greek—to be able to insult uneducated people who would not realize they were being insulted. (If Leona Helmsley had said “only the hoi polloi pay taxes,” would the outrage, or the prison sentence, have been greater or less?)

Even so, while many dictionaries note that “hoi polloi” can be used in a patronizing way, most simply define it as “the masses” or “the common people,” branding it at worst “informal.”

Now, about the “the” before “hoi polloi.” There are those who say it is redundant, since “hoi” means “the.” The American Heritage Dictionary calls those people “pedantic,” and, looking at the dictionary’s definition of “pedantic,” it doesn’t mean it as a compliment. The New Oxford American Dictionary is much kinder, saying that expressions like “hoi polloi” are often treated as “fixed units,” and thus the “the” is not one “the” too many.

 

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Merrill Perlman managed copy desks across the newsroom at The New York Times, where she worked for 25 years.