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.