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The hoi polloi get hoity-toity

Dec 28, 2014

"Hoi polloi" is one of those words that's just fun to say. But some of us may be confused about what the word  means.

University of Michigan English Professor Anne Curzan  says "hoi polloi" came into English from Greek in the 17th century.

"It refers to the masses, or the majority, but I think there's something happening where you're starting to see some people use it to refer to the elite," Curzan says. 

She consulted the Corpus of Contemporary American English, which shows current usage. 

"Sure enough, you find many instances where it refers to the masses," Curzan says. "For example, there was a report from NPR which said, 'While the celebrities hobnobbed inside, the hoi polloi mostly entertained themselves outside.' So there we see the historical meaning.

"But in 2012, on NBC's Today Show, I found this: 'Then later on, I got a chance to hobnob with some of the hoi polloi.'

Curzan says the hoi polloi in the second example was clearly referring to the elite.

Hoity-toity is another word that just rolls off the tongue.

"There's no connection historically, but I think hoity-toity may be affecting the meaning of hoi polloi," Curzan says.

"For some speakers, perhaps they're thinking that the hoi polloi are hoity-toity," she says. "Hoity-toity also goes back to the 17th century. It means someone assuming airs, assuming they're superior."

Curzan says according to the Oxford English Dictionary, hoity-toity goes back to the word "hoit," which was to indulge in mirth or to romp around, and over time that came to mean being superior.

Here's one to say out loud: "Entourage."

"This one came in the 19th century, from French, and started to increase in about 1880, and grew steadily since the 20th century," Curzan says. "It's not just a television show making it popular."

She wonders if the pronunciation of "entourage" will begin to change. 

"That final consonant may become a 'juh,' just like 'garage.'"