by L. G. William Chapman, B.A., LL.B.

Hoi polloi (Greekοἱ πολλοίhoi polloi, “the many”), a Greek expression meaning “the many” or, in the strictest sense, “the majority”, is used in English to refer to the working class, commoners, the masses or common people in a derogatory sense. Synonyms for hoi polloi which also express the same or similar contempt for such people include “the great unwashed”, “the plebeians” or “plebs”, “the rabble”, “riff-raff“, “the herd”, “the proles” and “peons” (“Wikipedia”). You’ll grant that the connotation of the term hoi polloi is common knowledge.  What, however, I derive of particular reputation from this etymology is the admittedly narrow point that it is held by some redundant to say “the hoi polloi” for I understand that “hoi” is the definite article.  Others however take the view that “…once established in English, expressions such as hoi polloi are treated as a fixed unit and are subject to the rules and conventions of English (Oxford)”. Amusingly hoi polloi is sometimes used incorrectly to mean “upper class”, likely a confusion that arose by association with the similar-sounding but otherwise unrelated expression “hoity-toity” (itself from the now obsolete “hoit” meaning to indulge in riotous mirth, perhaps later connected with “haughty”, pretentiously self-important, pompous).

Whichever term is applied, there is an element of scorn attached to either hoi polloi or hoity-toity.  This polar similarity captures what is in the result called snobbery.  Seen from either perspective, the hoi polloi and the hoity-toity are regarded with disdain, the masses for their apparent lack of culture, the bourgeoisie for their imitation of aristocracy.  In either case snobbery stigmatises a class to which one does not belong.

Snobbery figures prominently in more than one Hollywood film and British novel. It is the fodder of fashion and social codes.  When one “class” (itself a derogatory term) is set against another, the fireworks begin.  The difference of the classes is frequently the toxin for advancement of relationships, whether it is between male and female, same–sex couples, young and old, rich or poor (and very often a mixture of all the above).  Dichotomy is the root of discovery when it comes to interactions (consider Wodehouse’s heroes trying to marry chorus girls).  It is recurrently characterized as a “power struggle”.  Less kindly it is said that snobbery is a defensive expression of social insecurity.  For example William Hazlitt observed in a culture where deference to class was accepted as a positive and unifying principle, “Fashion is gentility running away from vulgarity and afraid of being overtaken by it”, adding subversively, “It is a sign the two things are not very far apart.” Snobbery is less about acknowledging the superiority of others than about aping them.

With the rise of the middle class (wherein a third of the most well-off, high status people consider themselves to be working class), the utility of distinguishing oneself by language, schooling and your shopping bag doesn’t go far to make anyone better than another.  The ubiquity of “knock-off” clothing, watches and jewellery makes the dedication even less persuasive.  It is even becoming more fashionable to avoid the very trademarks of superiority which once identified the snob – over-sized automobiles, monster houses, bling, etc.  Hollywood has once again led the charge by the adoption of what is now considered environmentally friendly materialism.

Nonetheless history suggests that snobbery is not about to die, it is remarkably durable.  It continues to insinuate itself into the body of our society.  The gentlemen of cricket, a world of butlers and sherry is not lost on the professional sportsmen who now get paid to imitate them:  “Ideas travel upwards, manners downwards (Bulwer-Lytton).”  George Orwell: “I suppose there is no place in the world where snobbery is quite so ever-present or where it is cultivated in such refined and subtle forms as in an English public school. Here at least one cannot say that English ‘education’ fails to do its job. You forget your Latin and Greek within a few months of leaving school — I studied Greek for eight or ten years, and now, at thirty-three, I cannot even repeat the Greek alphabet — but your snobbishness, unless you persistently root it out like the bindweed it is, sticks by you till your grave.”

Yet as much as the British are wont to appropriate snobbery to themselves, the animated delineation between one class and another is not reserved to them alone.  Snobbery is after all little more than a pretension with regard to one’s own tastes, whatever they may be, rather than a yearning to associate with those of higher social status.  Our singular preferences inevitably drive us to condescend to those with different tastes.