hoi pol·loi (hoi′ pə-loi)
The common people; the masses.
[Greek, the many : hoi, nominative pl. of ho, the; see so- in the Appendix of Indo-European roots + polloi, nominative pl. of polus, many; see pelə-1 in the Appendix of Indo-European roots.]
Usage Note: The phrase hoi polloi comes from Greek, where it means "the masses," and properly used, the English word means the same thing. In our 2002 survey, 95 percent of the Usage Panel approved of the example Stars who had arrived in stretch limos were elbow-to-elbow with the hoi polloi who had come on the subway. But many people use the word to refer to the upper crust of society—the exact opposite of its etymological meaning. The confusion may have arisen because of the similarity in sound of hoity toity, which means "pretentiously self-important, haughty." A small but significant portion of the Panel (28 percent) accepted this usage in the example The luxurious sets in the movie evoke the lifestyle of the hoi polloi in the early 20th century. This suggests that some people will allow either meaning of the word, perhaps out of sympathy for fellow speakers of English who did not study Greek. A second problem is related to the word hoi, which is the Greek definite article. Thus, for those who know their Greek, the expression the hoi polloi is a redundancy meaning "the the masses." Nonetheless, 78 percent of the Panel said that they used the with hoi polloi. The expression is an English one, after all.
The American Heritage® Dictionary of the English Language, Fifth Edition copyright ©2018 by Houghton Mifflin Harcourt Publishing Company. All rights reserved.
Indo-European & Semitic Roots Appendices
Thousands of entries in the dictionary include etymologies that trace their origins back to reconstructed proto-languages. You can obtain more information about these forms in our online appendices:
The Indo-European appendix covers nearly half of the Indo-European roots that have left their mark on English words. A more complete treatment of Indo-European roots and the English words derived from them is available in our Dictionary of Indo-European Roots.