June 27, 2008

I meant to post yesterday [I actually started writing this a few weeks ago, on a day after an un-posted day; an explanation will come in time]. I spent most of the day, however, in a haze of bliss, because I began it by solving one of the most vexing, intractable linguistic problems facing current speakers of English.

I figured out what to do with “hoi polloi.”

A brief rundown to remind us of the problem:

The phrase “hoi polloi,” meaning essentially “the masses,” came into 19th-century English from ancient Greek, in which it means literally “the many (people),” usually though not always in a derogatory sense. (This in itself is interesting, given that the borrowing was almost certainly inspired by Pericles’ Funeral Oration, in which he used the words in high praise for the citizens of Athens in days marked not just by the Pelopponesian War but also by an outbreak of the plague, which eventually laid Pericles low too.) The difficulty in English comes because “hoi” is the Greek word for “the” in “the many.” People who wish to use the phrase are faced with two equally unsatisfactory options: say “the hoi polloi” (as in “we went outside to join the hoi polloi”) and be thought by some people to be saying “the the many,” or say “hoi polloi” (as in “we went outside to join hoi polloi”) and be thought by some people to be an insufferable snob. I myself end up doing what I always do with words and phrases the pronunciation of which is (correctly or incorrectly) disputed (“forte” as a noun, for example), which is simply to use different words (“strong point”).

There are reasonable arguments on either side. Members of the anti-the contingent point out that nobody says, “I was looking for the le mot juste” (French for “the right word). Members of the pro-the contingent counter that nobody says, “Put the vase in alcove” (in the Arabic word for “the vault,” “al” is “the”).

[A note to the reader: I wrote the above two weeks ago. I stopped where I stopped, mid-discussion, because I knew I had a great deal more to write, and my energy was flagging; I’d just pick it up again, I figured, a few days later. Now that it is a few days later, however, I have absolutely no idea what more I could possibly have had to discuss, so I’ll just cut to the chase.]

Obviously, we just have to treat “hoi polloi” as one word in English: hoipolloi. Then it becomes much closer, structurally, to things like “alchemy” than to things like “le mot juste,” and “the” feels much less incorrect.

So now that that’s decided, I just need to figure out how to convince the hoipolloi to go along with it.

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24 Responses to I meant to post yesterday [I actually started writing this

  1. Kate says:

    Then what do we do about people who think the “hoi polloi” are the elites, the upper classes – just the opposite of the masses? I’ve always had the impression that the word actually is used for two distinct and opposite meanings in English.

  2. Mike B. says:

    Since when have we been allowed to coin new words out of multi-word foreign phrases? That’s all kinds of wrong.

    In practice, anyway, it really is a single word that happens to include a space–if you can’t use either component independently, you have an atomic unit. Thus you might as well consider it already to be in the class of the al- loanwords from Arabic.

    My solution, when writing the word, would be to italicize, as I do with in vivo and such (even though the AMA style guide has ceased to do so). This emphasizes the integrity of the borrowed phrase.

  3. TED says:

    You are all kinds of wrong on this one, Faustus. I don’t ever use the phrase myself, but were I to do so, I would say “the hoi polloi” because anything else sounds ridiculous. Mike B.’s arguments are compelling, though I wouldn’t bother to italicize.

    In any case, I think Kate points out the larger problem. The phrase is so often used incorrectly that one can’t be sure of being understood when one uses it. I would stick with “the masses.” Everyone knows exactly what it means, and it has all the same connotations.

  4. Mike B. and TED, I’m shocked at you. The answer to Mike B.’s question, off the top of my head, is at least since we started using the word legerdemain. If it were unequivocally one word in practice, then nobody would object to “the hoi polloi”; since many people do, the only possibility is that there are conflicting perceptions. TED, your approach is both unsubtle and inconsistent; ridiculousness has never been the only criterion by which you (I mean you, TED, at least as long as I’ve known you) judge language when there are also issues of correctness involved. I have to assume that the concatenation of compound words is not prima facie a problem for either of you. So what’s the problem here?

    However, TED, I had no idea that anybody used the phrase in the way Kate describes. I suppose people who do so are thinking of “hoity-toity.” And if that’s the case, then there’s really nothing that can be done to help them, and they are really more to be pitied than censured.

  5. jaime says:

    So what is the correct pronunciation of forte-as-noun? I cringe every time my boss says it, because I think he’s wrong, but maybe it’s my mistake? He does have a wretched track record, though. He pronounces “dramaturg” with a soft G, which is just inexcusable. And, like, this weird thing on the U so it’s dramatyoorje and it makes me want to die.

  6. jaime: “Forte” in the sense in question came into English from French, whereas the musical instruction came from Italian. So pronounce it like the Alamo. (Alas, I don’t know how to do IPA on a computer.)

  7. campbell says:

    And then, of course, there is the whole question of getting them to stress the correct syllable. ‘Hoy POLL-oy’ and not ‘Hoy Poll-OY’

    On the other hand, surely one should try, so far as is possible, not to obtrude foreign words and phrases into one’s conversation or writing.

  8. Mike B. says:

    From the point of view of a language user as opposed to a prescriptive grammarian, you can do anydamnthing you want. You can make “hoipolloi” one word, and you can also use “impact” as a transitive verb. The sky’s the limit!

    But I don’t think you of all people want to go there. If you hold that there are rules in English that compel you to recognize the redundancy of articles even in a loanword, you should probably view the language as a closed system altogether. Otherwise, why not just scrap the rule that disallows the redundancy?

  9. campbell: Perhaps that’s an intercontinental thing; over here it’s pollOY. One could say of course that ultimate-syllable stress is justified by the accent in the Greek (on the ultimate syllable), but that’s kind of a spurious argument, given that accent in Greek marked not stress but pitch.

    Mike B.: But you and I agree! It’s a sociolinguistic issue, not a linguistic one. I believe that “the hoi polloi” is correct; I’m looking for a way to allow people to use the term without subjecting themselves to the scorn of others who believe–incorrectly–that such a use is wrong.

    If, as you suggest in your first comment–with which I concur–“hoi polloi” is really one word, why not allow it to follow the usual course of compound words in general from separate to hyphenated to together (voice mail–>voice-mail–>voicemail, or hot dog–>hot-dog–>hotdog?)? The fact that it’s a loan word doesn’t signify; it’s been centuries since tatterdemalion was spelled tatter-de-mallian. Why not give hoi polloi (–>hoi-polloi–>hoipolloi) a helpful nudge?

    Sigh. This would all be much easier if I had majored in Classics like I was going to. Then I wouldn’t have any descriptive principles to integrate with my prescriptivist tendencies. Or if I could find a way just to pick one (use the article or don’t) and know that some people would scorn me, that would be okay too, except that then there would be people I couldn’t make love me.

    I stand by legerdemain, though.

  10. Jaime says:

    Re: “fort.” That’s so sad. At least he’s still wrong about dramaturg.

  11. Amber says:

    Good Lord! Here in Waco if someone said “the masses” they’d be considered a snob. “Hoi polloi” would get utter looks of confusion.

  12. Aidan says:

    Some days you scare the the shit out of me, Cupcake. Maybe you should go back on your meds.

    On a totally different subject, I made gefilte fish last night and challah this morning. I’m well on my way to becoming someone’s Grandma Yetta.

  13. TED says:

    Amber, the sad fact is that anyone who uses either “hoi polloi” or “the masses” is a snob. I’m not saying it’s a bad thing, but if one is trying to avoid sounding snobbish by being incomprehensible, one should think again. Anyone who’s hoity-toity enough to say “hoi polloi” needs to own it.

    Faustus, it is erroneous to infer from what I said that ridiculousness is the only criterion I use in judging whether to use a word. However, while ridiculousness may not be necessary to disqualify a word, it is sufficient.

  14. Jaime: I’m so sorry.

    Amber: I don’t understand. You can read and write, but you’ve chosen to stay in Waco?

    Aidan: There, there, bubbeleh.

    TED: Forgive me; I typed rashly, though I’m interested in knowing your other criteria. My point (and Mike, this concerns our discussion as well) is simply that initiating the process of language change (where in most cases we just become part of a process already in, um, progress) is just as valid a thing to do. Especially when there’s a perfectly lovely word that, if it could be made less ridiculous–which my proposal would do–would be of great use to a great number of people.

  15. Amber says:

    It’s not that I have chosen to reside in Waco, but that family keeps me here. Alas, not only do they not know what “hoi polloi” means, my father thought it was a food dish. I’ll just go and die now.

  16. Logan says:

    “Hoipolloi” looks Finnish.

    The double definite never really bothered me when it came to words from languages that most English speakers can’t intuit the gist of, but saying something like “the El Camino” has always sent up a red flag in my head. Still, I don’t see the problem so much as one of overlap as much as I see it as one of English speakers not knowing what the hell they’re doing when they steal foreign phrases.

  17. Jeffrey says:

    This is why I’ve always called them the great unwashed. So much easier.

  18. Aidan says:

    I would like to go on the record as one who is opposed to changing in language. Except for improvements in the areas of civil rights and personal freedom, I am opposed to change of all kinds. Please excuse me now while I go knit on my antimacassar.

  19. Kate says:

    I went to the OED to see if they acknowledge the incorrect usage of hoi polloi; they don’t, though I feel like I’ve heard it used for “the upper classes” more often than for “the masses.” I bet it’s a US thing. But they do note “In English use [it is] normally preceded by the definite article even though hoi means

  20. birdfarm says:

    I’ve never heard it used for “the upper classes.” Is it possible that you misunderstood, Kate? For example, suppose you heard someone asserting that “the hoipolloi have too much control over the choice of our national leaders;” you may have thought the speaker was a firebrand populist, when in fact s/he was a closet monarchist. No? Then that’s just sad, as Faustus noted.

    This reminds me of two things:
    (1) the plural of hippopotamus, which has always vexed me (should be hippoi potamus, but could conceivably be argued to be hippopotamuses in English; never, however, hippopotami!) and (2) linguistic redundancy at my elementary school, where we had a “multipurpose room,” usually referred to as “the MPR.” It used to drive me insane, even at the tender age of seven or eight, when people would refer to “the MPR room.”

  21. David says:

    I hate to break it to you, but “the most vexing, intractable linguistic problem facing current speakers of English” is, in fact, the English language.

  22. Amber: This is why they invented train and bus tickets.

    Logan: Maybe the answer is that we should all switch to Esperanto?

    Jeffrey: You are clearly way ahead of the rest of us.

    Aidan: You left out air conditioning.

    Kate: Msybe we should go all the way with Dryden and Byron and just write the phrase using Greek letters: ‘οι πολλοι.

    birdfarm: No wonder your students gave you trouble this year.

    David: Oh, don’t be silly. Next you’re going to start advocating spelling reform.

  23. Shawn says:

    Stop it! Do you have any idea how much you turn me on when you talk like this? Seriously.

  24. birdfarm says:

    ooh, low blow. no, my students gave me trouble because they are pure evil incarnate. there is a song called “eat my balls, mr. garrison” that perfectly captures the atmosphere of my classroom… worth a listen 🙂

    i kinda miss the little bastards tho…


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