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Hoi polloi (Ancient Greek: οἱ πολλοί, hoi polloi, “the many”), a Greek expression meaning "the many" or, in the strictest sense, "the majority", is used in English to refer to the working class, commoners, the masses or common people in a derogatory sense. Synonyms for hoi polloi which also express the same or similar contempt for such people include "the great unwashed", "the plebeians" or "plebs", "the rabble",  "riff-raff", "the herd", "the proles" and "peons".
The phrase became known to English scholars probably from Pericles' Funeral Oration, as mentioned in Thucydides' History of the Peloponnesian War. Pericles uses it in a positive way when praising the Athenian democracy, contrasting it with hoi oligoi, "the few" (Greek: οἱ ὀλίγοι, see also oligarchy)
Its current English usage originated in the early 19th century, a time when it was generally accepted that one must be familiar with Greek and Latin in order to be considered well educated. The phrase was originally written in Greek letters. Knowledge of these languages served to set apart the speaker from hoi polloi in question, who were not similarly educated.
The phrase has three different pronunciations:
Some linguistic prescriptivists and students of ancient Greek argue that, given that hoi is a definite article, the phrase "the hoi polloi" is redundant, akin to saying "the the masses". Others argue that this is inconsistent with other English loanwords. The word "alcohol", for instance, derives from the Arabic al-kuhl, al being an article, yet "the alcohol" is universally accepted as good grammar; relevant differences, however, are that a) hoi polloi is transliterated but otherwise unmodified, whereas alcohol is altered in both pronunciation and associated spelling to form an independent word, and b) hoi polloi is left standing as a multiple-word phrase, with one word devoted exclusively to the function of the definite article, whereas in alcohol the grammatical particle serving as an article is assimilated into the (heavily modified) word.
There have been numerous uses of the term in English literature. James Fenimore Cooper, author of The Last of the Mohicans, is often credited with making the first recorded usage of the term in English. The first recorded use by Cooper occurs in his 1837 work Gleanings in Europe where he writes "After which the oi polloi are enrolled as they can find interest."
Lord Byron had, in fact, previously used the term in his letters and journal. In one journal entry, dated 24 November 1813, Byron writes "I have not answered W. Scott's last letter,—but I will. I regret to hear from others, that he has lately been unfortunate in pecuniary involvements. He is undoubtedly the Monarch of Parnassus, and the most English of bards. I should place Rogers next in the living list (I value him more as the last of the best school) —Moore and Campbell both third—Southey and Wordsworth and Coleridge—the rest, οι πολλοί [hoi polloi in Greek]—thus:— (see image reproduced on this page).
Byron also wrote an 1821 entry in his journal "... one or two others, with myself, put on masks, and went on the stage with the 'oi polloi."
While Charles Darwin was at the University of Cambridge from 1828 to 1831, undergraduates used the term "hoi polloi" or "Poll" for those reading for an ordinary degree, the "pass degree". At that time only capable mathematicians would take the Tripos or honours degree. In his autobiography written in the 1870s, Darwin recalled that "By answering well the examination questions in Paley, by doing Euclid well, and by not failing miserably in Classics, I gained a good place among the οἱ πολλοί, or crowd of men who do not go in for honours."
W. S. Gilbert used the term in 1882 when he wrote the libretto of the comic opera Iolanthe. In Act I, the following exchange occurs between a group of disgruntled fairies who are arranging to elevate a lowly shepherd to the peerage, and members of the House of Lords who will not hear of such a thing.
Gilbert's parallel use of canaille, plebs (plebeians), and hoi polloi makes it clear that the term is derogatory of the lower classes. In many versions of the vocal score, it is written as "οἱ πολλοί", likely confusing generations of amateur choristers who had not had the advantages of a British Public School education.
John Dryden used the phrase in his Essay of Dramatick Poesie, published in 1668. Dryden spells the phrase with Greek letters, but the rest of the sentence is in English (and he does precede it with "the").
The term has appeared in several films and radio programs. One of the earliest short films from the Three Stooges was a 1935 film titled Hoi Polloi. The film opens in an exclusive restaurant where two wealthy gentlemen are arguing whether heredity or environment is more important in shaping character. They make a bet and pick on nearby trashmen (the Stooges) to prove their theory. At the conclusion of three months in training, the Stooges attend a dinner party, where they thoroughly embarrass the professors.
The University of Dayton's Don Morlan says, "The theme in these shorts of the Stooges against the rich is bringing the rich down to their level and shaking their heads." A typical Stooges joke from the film is when someone addresses them as "gentlemen", and they look over their shoulders to see who was being addressed. The Three Stooges turn the tables on their hosts by calling them "hoi polloi" at the end.
The term continues to be used in contemporary writing. In his 1983 introduction to Robert Anton Wilson's Prometheus Rising, Israel Regardie writes, "Once I was even so presumptuous as to warn (Wilson) in a letter that his humor was much too good to waste on hoi polloi who generally speaking would not understand it and might even resent it."
The term "hoi polloi" was used in a dramatic scene in the 1989 film Dead Poets Society. In this scene, Professor Keating speaks negatively about the use of the article "the" in front of the phrase:
Keating's tone makes clear that he considers this statement to be an insult. He used the phrase "the hoi polloi", to demonstrate the mistake he warned against.
The term also used in the 1980 comedy film Caddyshack. In a rare moment of cleverness, Spaulding Smails greets Danny Noonan as he arrives for the christening of The Flying Wasp, the boat belonging to Judge Elihu Smails (Spaulding's grandfather), with "Ahoy, polloi! Where did you come from, a scotch ad?" This is particularly ironic, because Danny has just finished mowing the Judge's lawn, and arrives overdressed, wearing a sailboat captain's outfit (as the girl seated next to him points out, Danny "looks like Dick Cavett").
The Lovin' Spoonful's song Jug Band Music includes the line "He tried to mooch a towel from the hoi polloi."
In the song Risingson on Massive Attack's Mezzanine album, the singer apparently appeals to his company to leave the club they're in, deriding the common persons' infatuation with them, and implying that he's about to slide into antisocial behaviour:
In an episode of This American Life, radio host Ira Glass uses the term hoi polloi while relaying a story about a woman who believes the letter 'q' should occur later in the alphabet. He goes on to say that "Q does not belong in the middle of the alphabet where it is, with the hoi polloi of the alphabet, with your 'm' 'n' and 'p'. Letters that will just join any word for the asking."
The term was used in a first-series episode (The New Vicar, aired 5 November 1990) of the British sitcom Keeping Up Appearances. The main character, Hyacinth Bucket, gets into a telephone argument with a bakery employee. When the employee abruptly hangs up in frustration, Hyacinth disparagingly refers to him as "hoi polloi". This is in keeping with her character; she looks down upon those she considers to be of lesser social standing, including working-class people.
The August 14, 2001 episode of CNN's Larry King Live program included a discussion about whether the sport of polo was an appropriate part of the image of the British Royal Family. Joining King on the program were "best-selling biographer and veteran royal watcher Robert Lacey" and Kitty Kelley, author of the book The Royals. Their discussions focused on Prince Charles and his son Prince William.
The term also appears in the 2003 Broadway musical Wicked, where it is used by the characters Elphaba and Glinda to refer to the many inhabitants of the Emerald City: "... I wanna be in this hoi polloi ..."
Jack Cafferty, a CNN anchorman, was caught misusing the term. On 9 December 2004 he retracted his statement, saying "And hoi-polloi refers to common people, not those rich morons that are evicting those two red-tail hawks (ph) from that fifth Avenue co-op. I misused the word hoi-polloi. And for that I humbly apologize."
New media and new inventions have also been described as being by or for the hoi polloi. Bob Garfield, co-host of NPR's On the Media program, 8 November 2005, used the phrase in reference to changing practices in the media, especially Wikipedia, "The people in the encyclopedia business, I understand, tend to sniff at the wiki process as being the product of the mere hoi polloi." The blog Isengard.gov referred to the $100 PC project as being for kids and the hoi polloi. The post went on to refer to the correct usage of the phrase, "*Although we at Isengard.gov are using the Greek phrase hoi polloi in its correct meaning of "the common people", rather than the incorrect but more hoi-polloish meaning of "the hoity-toities", "the fancy-living types", the "ravenous blood-sucking leeches fattening their stomachs on the backs of the masses", or "THE ARISTOCRATS!", it does not, in and of itself, indicate that we are insufferable smarty-pants. That may be established by independent means."
Duran Duran lead singer and lyricist Simon le Bon has included the phrase in the band's song Skin Divers from their 2007 release Red Carpet Massacre: Fighting on the shore, The hoi polloi want more, Howling bloody murder, but it's nothing just a murmur.
Gossip Girl (TV series) character Chuck Bass refers to fellow character Dan Humphrey as hoi polloi in episode 14 of the second season, "In The Realm of the Basses" He says "that's the problem with an open invitation. No way to keep out the hoi polloi."
Dottore Massimo in The Thief Lord (film) says to his son Scipio "What have I told you about mixing with the hoi polloi?" He is referring to Scipio's friendship with Prosper and Bo, two brothers that are poor runaways.
Kay D. Smith and Marc Tall have produced a dance music collaboration titled Hoipolloi.
Rome (TV Series) character Ciarán Hinds uses the phrase in episode 5 of the first season "The ram has touched the wall" in the scene where he as Caesar refuses a truce with Pompei Magnus. When proposed with a reason for refusing the truce he comments "something the hoi polloi can understand".
The term also appears in the 2010 HBO film, "You Don't Know Jack", where Jack Kevorkian (played by Al Pacino) says, "If it's good enough for the aristoi, then it should be good enough for the hoi polloi."
Rizzoli & Isles (TV Series) character Dr. Maura Isles (Sasha Alexander) uses the phrase in episode 1 of the third season "What Doesn't Kill You" in the scene where she and Det. Jane Rizzoli (Angie Harmon) are arguing in the police lab. When Jane calls her Poindexter the know-it-all, Maura shouts back, "I'd rather be Poindexter the know-it-all than the hoi polloi."
The phrase "hoi polloi" has been used to promote products and businesses. As described by the Pittsburgh Dish, the name "Hoi Polloi" may be chosen to indicate that the brand or service will appeal to the "common people".
The phrase has also been used in commercial works as the name a race of people.
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