Tuesday, January 06, 2009

Hoi polloi

Dear World:

Please stop writing "the hoi polloi." "Hoi" means "the." The "the" is thus redundant.

The Arbiters of Style disagree with me on this. One representatively writes,

Hoi polloi is Greek for “the common people,” but it is often misused to mean “the upper class” (does “hoi” make speakers think of “high” or "hoity-toity"?). Some urge that since “hoi” is the article “the hoi polloi” is redundant; but the general rule is that articles such as "the” and “a” in foreign language phrases cease to function as such in place names, brands, and catch phrases except for some of the most familiar ones in French and Spanish, where everyone recognizes “la"—for instance—as meaning “the.” “The El Nino” is redundant, but “the hoi polloi” is standard English.


They disagree, but they're wrong. And their argument, which seems to be that redundancy is acceptable when people don't recognize it, will fail completely as soon as we properly educate everyone. So stop some folks on the street today, on the elevator, at your local DazBog, and tell them, " `Hoi' means `the,' you know."

Thank you.


P.S. On the other hand, everyone in Santa Fe, natives, tourists, and employees alike, calls the famous hotel there "The La Fonda." Sometimes, piling Pelion upon Ossa, they call it "The La Fonda Hotel."


Nevid said...

Familiarity seems to be the key thing. I didn't know "hoi" was the article, and have only ever seen it written as "the hoi polloi", but I think it's just as funny that there are so many assimilated phrases in English one never questions the origins of*. I mean, I'm ancient, and I've never wondered what hoi polloi is? I guess I must have thought it a vaguely onomatopoeic term -- pleasantly snobby sounding. Not sure I could start leaving off the article at this late date.

As for Santa Fe, well, I've never heard "The La Posada", only La Posada -- again, the familiarity of the article being what saves most people from saying "the La". And The La Fonda? Haven't heard that either, but if I never leave my house till it thaws, I'm not likely to hear much of anything. I do know that when I tell people on the phone (not friends, but people selling or shipping me something) that my address is Camino R--------, they almost invariably ask "Is that Street or Road?" I splain it. Even folks in Texas seem to need splainin' which surprises me, but only a little.

*(Hobson Jobson, as I know we've discussed, is a compendium of the ones deriving from India.)

RHE said...

One could, if one wanted, download Hobson-Jobson, at


Don't all try at once: you'll crash the site.

Agnes said...

I've never used that term in my life, and I refuse to start now! Looks like it should be the name of a Hawaiian chicken dish. I like hoity-toity, though, which for some reason at this moment brings to mind all-day suckers. Explain that one.

RHE said...

Check this out from the New Mexico State Tourism Board:

The historic La Fonda Hotel sits on the corner of East Water and San Francisco Streets, in the historic district of Santa Fe...Today, the La Fonda Hotel is said to host not only travelers visiting Santa Fe, but also several ghosts.

You can't make this stuff up.

RHE said...

Dear Anonymous Correspondent,

Well, yes, it is, in its way, a bit like my "thing," as you put it, for "minuscule." "Minuscule" is right; "miniscule" is wrong: a moment spent on etymological--no, not entomological--considerations should convince anyone. But, yes, if enough people spell it wrong enough for long enough, it will, through the magic of descriptive linguistics, become "right"--in the sense that Cro-Magnon was right and Neanderthal was wrong.

But not yet. And not for me.

Thank you for writing. Have you considered