In a recent discussion on MetaFilter, someone referred to “the hoi polloi” and someone else (inevitably) said that this was redundant because “hoi means ‘the’.” This whole thing irritates me so much I can’t resist hashing it out here. The basic principle: To speak English correctly, you don’t need to know any other languages. Isn’t that obvious? The problem with “hoi polloi” used to be that everybody who counted had a classical education and thus had Greek drilled into them so thoroughly that “the hoi” sounded redundant to them; Fowler was so upset by this that (although he was generally sensible on the subject of loan words) he recommended that the phrase be eschewed altogether! These days nobody knows Greek, but thanks to Fowler and his epigones everybody “knows” that “the hoi polloi” is wrong, so the anathema gets passed down from generation to generation.

All right, let’s take it a step farther. “Al” in Arabic means ‘the,’ so “the Alhambra” is redundant (‘the the red’) and should be eschewed. Not silly enough for you? How about this: “the Paraguay River” etymologically means ‘the river river river’! That’s right, para means ‘river’ and so does guay. The same is true of “the Yenisei River”; Evenki (y)ene means ‘big river’ and ses means ‘river.’ We are led to the conclusion that either 1) everyone must learn all other languages before daring to speak their own, or 2) “the hoi polloi” is perfectly good English, being the standard usage ever since it was first borrowed. “Hoi polloi” is treated in English as an unanalyzable compound, and that is as it should be.


  1. òàêîâà ñå ëÿ âè.

  2. Aaaiieee! I can’t read my own comments section!

  3. i just wrote,
    takova se lya vi.
    (I refuse to spell it in proper French!)
    -btw, this sentence applies to your comment section as well.

  4. I’ve heard, but cannot confirm (although someone else here undoubtedly can) that “rice paddy” is in this category, “paddy” meaning a rice patch. I’m glad to read a persuasive argument not to worry about this sort of thing 😉

  5. I’m convinced. I can’t fault the logic there. “The ‘hoi polloi'” it is!

  6. Hmm…that “unanalyzable compound” idea convinced me too. Not that it will stop me from irritably correcting people who talk about “the Sahara Desert.”

  7. Hey, hippugeek, nice to see you here! I liked your comments in y2karl’s poetry thread.

  8. I wonder if anyone has said/written something like “Jenny Churchill, born nee Jenny Jerome”?

    I’m sure I’ve seen “nee” used (instead of “ne”) to refer to blatantly masculine or inanimate entities, but the above would take the cake.

  9. May one write “the polloi”?

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