Tuesday, May 27, 2008


Snob and Hoi Polloi

Among the definitions of snob in the Oxford English Dictionary (OED) are these:
3.a. A person belonging to the ordinary or lower classes of society; one having no pretensions to rank or gentility.

b. One who has little or no breeding or good taste; a vulgar or ostentatious person.

c. One who meanly or vulgarly admires and seeks to imitate, or associate with, those of superior rank or wealth; one who wishes to be regarded as a person of social importance.

d. One who despises those who are considered inferior in rank, attainment, or taste.
Senses 3.a and 3.d are effectively opposites, so that snob is an auto-antonym, a word that means the opposite of itself.

The OED gives only one definition of hoi polloi ("the majority; the masses"), but another is unfortunately widespread, at least in spoken English. According to Merriam-Webster's Concise Dictionary of English Usage, some people use
hoi polloi to mean "the snobby elite," a sense which is almost directly opposed to the term's original meaning, A few commentators (as Bernstein 1977, Bryson 1984, Garner 1998, and Heritage 2000) mention and censure this sense. It rarely occurs in print. Our earliest example is this one:
I could fly over to Europe and join the rich hoi polloi at Monte Carlo — Westbrook Pegler, Times News-Tribune (Tacoma, Wash.), 25 Sept. 1955
Since Pegler's time we have found only three or four more examples (Garner has a 1997 example). It appears, however, that this sense of hoi polloi is extremely common in speech.
See also R.W. Burchfield, The New Fowler's Modern English Usage, 3rd edition (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1996), p. 363:
By an overturning of the true sense, hoi polloi has, since the 1950s, come to be used in parts of America, to mean 'high society, the upper crust'. Substantial evidence of this unwelcome use is presented in vol. ii (1991) of DARE: e.g. How can a night-club comedian go on Broadway? ... I'm a street corner character, and Broadway audiences have a hoi-polloi attitude—New Yorker, 1988. And not only in America it would seem: e.g. I know our Terry's much too grand for the likes of us nowadays—too busy consorting with the hoi polloi at all those literary soirées—S. Mackay, 1992.
DARE is the Dictionary of American Regional English, and the New Yorker quotation is from Jackie Mason.

This shift in the meaning of hoi polloi parallels the shift in the meaning of snob. It is hard for a purist to accept that hoi polloi can mean "the snobby elite," however. The etymology of snob is obscure. Anatoly Liberman, Snob Before and After Thackeray, speculates on its origin, but comes to no firm conclusion. The origin of hoi polloi, on the other hand, is clear. It meant the same in ancient Greek, 2500 years ago, as it does in English today. Plato, Republic 6.17.505b, contrasted οἱ πολλοί (the many) with οἱ κομψότεροι (the more refined).

I'm indebted to Brandon Watson at Siris for the following quotation from William Whewell, On the Principles of English University Education:
Those who are familiar with Greek and Latin cannot but feel, in every sentence they read and write, that the whole history of the civilized world is stamped upon the expressions they use. The progress of thought and of institutions, the most successful labours of the poet, the philosopher, the legislator have, in thousands of cases, operated to give a meaning to one little word. Those who feel this have a view of the language which they speak far more intelligent, far more refined, than those who gather the force of words from blind usage, without seeing any connexion or any reason. What does intellectual culture mean, if it does not mean something more than this? What does it mean but that insight, that distinctness of thought with regard to the terms we employ which saves us from solecisms, not by habit but by principle, which shows us analogy where others see only accident, and which makes language itself a chain connecting us with the intellectual progress of all ages. In what a condition should we be if our connexion with the past were snapped — if Greek and Latin were forgotten? What should we then think of our own languages? They would appear a mere mass of incoherent caprice and wanton lawlessness.
For another point of view, see an anonymous article on Superfine English in The Cornhill Magazine, new series, Vol. V (July to December 1885), pp. 626-635:
Your true prig of a pedant goes immensely out of his way to be vastly more correct than other people, and succeeds in the end in being vastly more ungrammatical, or vastly more illogical, or both at once. The common pronunciation, the common idiom, the common meaning attached to a word, are not nearly good enough or fine enough for him: he must try to get at the original sound, at the strict construction, at the true sense, and he always manages to blunder upon something far worse than the slight error, if error it be, which he attempts to avoid in his superfine correctness....And this leads us on to a second habit of the microscopic critic, which I venture to describe as the Etymological Fallacy. Your critic happens to know well some one particular language, let us say Greek or Latin; and so far as the words derived from that language are concerned (and so far only) he insists upon every word being rigidly applied in its strict original etymological meaning. He makes no allowance for the natural and beautiful growth of metaphor, and the transference of signification, which must necessarily affect the usage of all words in the course of time....For the truth is, it is quite useless for any one man to set himself up single-handed against the irresistible march of nations. Languages grow and are not made; they are the outcome of deep-seated popular forces, and the meanings which the people impose upon words are the meanings they have got to bear in the long-run, whether the pedants like it or no....One word as to the general underlying principle which pervades all these manifestations of superfine English. They are all alike the result of taking too much trouble about mere expression. Just as self-consciousness in manner produces the affected airs and graces, the poses and attitudes, the laughs and giggles, of Miss Jemima, so self-consciousness in modes of expression produces the absurd over-particular nicety of the national schoolmaster and the educated pedant.
In the case of hoi polloi, I plead guilty to the etymological fallacy and to over-particular nicety.

Related post: Snob.


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