Word of the Week: Hoi Polloi

PART of the joy of writing—or its challenge, depending on how you look at it—is the whole process of going word shopping. That, essentially, is what diction is. Diction: choice of words. You set about choosing the right word, the best word for your sentence.

Sometimes, your mind hums with a few possibilities, then you do the taste test, or more correctly, the ear test. Sounds nice? Hmmm. Maybe not. Then you try another, and another.

Other times, you stumble upon a word, but you’re unsure if it works, so you consult the dictionary. That was exactly what happened when I typed the word hoi polloi three weeks ago, while working on an essay with my Secondary Three student, Nathaniel—an essay we’d eventually name The Spirit and Personality of What We Wear.

We were writing about the astute fashion choices of Michelle Obama, and how she chose to settle with J. Crew at her husband’s first inauguration in 2009—not just for herself, but the entire family. So there it was on the screen: the phrase, “hoi polloi brand.” Is that the right word though? I knew it refers to the masses, the common people, but something didn’t feel right, as Oxford would eventually confirm:

hoi polloi |ˌhɔɪ pəˈlɔɪ| (pl.noun)
(usu. the hoi polloi) derogatory
the masses; the common people: avoid mixing with the hoi polloi.

We stripped the word out, and chose not to replace it with another synonym—which tends to be the sort of advice school teachers like to give for summary and comprehension, just to fulfill that maddening UYOWAFAP rule: Use Your Own Words As Far As Possible.

Ta-dah, here’s the good news though! Who ever said you always have to go down the synonym route? And so, this was what we wrote:

The most striking aspect of Mrs. Obama’s fashion picks is not just a sense of democracy, she’s careful to eschew the ultra-expensive. In her husband’s very first inauguration in 2009, the fashion brand associated with the newly minted first family is not some chichi name, but the all-American J. Crew.

To convey hoi polloi without the derogatory tone, we used three phrases: “eschew the ultra-expensive,” “not some chichi name,” and “the all-American.” Harder work, yes, but definitely more fluid, fluent, and effective.

Lest you think the word has Hawaiian origins—it sounds pretty aloha, doesn’t it?—here are some etymology notes from Oxford:

Hoi is the Greek word for the, and the phrase hoi polloi means “the many.” This has led some traditionalists to insist that hoi polloi should not be used in English with the, since that would be to state the word the twice. But, once established in English, expressions such as hoi polloi are typically treated as fixed units and are subject to the rules and conventions of English. Evidence shows that use with the has now become an accepted part of standard English usage: they kept to themselves, away from the hoi polloi (rather than . . . away from hoi polloi).

I invite you to write to me at  viv@mywritinghome.com if you have any word ideas you’d like to share.


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