An Irish woman's social, political and domestic commentary
Friday, March 05, 2004  

Hoi hoi polloi

It goes on. An outraged Tom has provided this history:

"Hoi polloi'' began to be used in English in the early 19th century, a time when having a good education meant mastering Greek and Latin. Yet when we look at early examples of the term in use, we find that the educated writers of the time, who knew the meaning of "hoi'' full well, did not hesitate to precede the term with "the.'' Both John Dryden and Lord Byron, for example, used "the'' with "hoi polloi,'' which they wrote using the Greek letters. As the transliterated form became more common in the 1800s, it was usually preceded by "the.''

The issue did not become a subject of controversy until 1926, when H. W. Fowler described "hoi polloi'' and other Greek terms like it as "uncomfortable.'' Fowler recommended avoiding "hoi polloi'' entirely, and other commentators followed suit. The term hung on, however, and in the last quarter of the 20th century we found commentators recommending only that people not use "the'' with "hoi polloi.''

But if using "the'' before "hoi polloi'' creates an undesirable redundancy, why did the like of John Dryden and Lord Byron find the usage unobjectionable? Perhaps it is because they understood that English and Greek are two different languages, and that whatever its literal meaning in Greek, "hoi'' does not mean "the'' in English.

There is, in fact, no independent word "hoi'' in English, but only the term "hoi polloi,'' meaning "commoners'' or "rabble.'' It is really no more redundant in English to say "the hoi polloi'' than it is to say "the rabble.''

In current English, "hoi polloi'' can be correctly used both with and without the article "the,'' but use with "the'' continues to be significantly more common. Use without "the'' appears now to be more common in British English than in American English."

As a final authority I consulted Darren, who sides with Tom since as he points out "While it may not be correct, it's in common
usage that way. Common use has a way of winning out over the grammarians". I think this tips the balance in favour of using the definite article.

I was going to mention that since language is evolutionary we should acknowledge that common usage should be our guide: but then I thought that as (the) hoi polloi's use of certain words is often incorrect that perhaps we should not bow to their common (mis)use. For example, I am soooo tired of hearing 'presently' being used instead of 'currently'. I don't care how many people get it wrong; they are still wrong. And what about all those done's instead of did's and bizarrely placed apostrophes? The rule of thumb appears to be that we can follow common [mis]use as long as it's been going on for a hundred years. Anything less than 20 and we can release our pedantry to the unsuspecting masses.

A final word: Perhaps this Fowler chap mentioned above had the right idea - use of foreign terms is 'uncomfortable'.

posted by Sarah | 20:18 0 comments
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