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Meeting ‘the Hoi Polloi’ Head On

In about 1938 or ’39, Will Osborne and Dick Rogers wrote a song called “Between 18th and 19th on Chestnut Street.” It had a successful run of a few years. I’m not sure it ever made it to the Lucky Strike Hit Parade, but I still remember the words, so, to that extent at least, it is a memorable song. It was about “a rib joint where the folks all meet--meet every mornin’ for to drink and eat” where, it was implied, you could get good grub, good booze, good fellowship and great boogie-woogie all night long.

The ‘40s was a decade famous mostly for World War II, but it was also the high point of the popularity of boogie-woogie. “Between 18th and 19th on Chestnut Street” has a line, “You’ll hear piano played by Stacy Trent; he is the famous boogie-woogie gent,” and the number was played with a boogie beat by Bob Crosby and his Bobcats and several other big-name bands.

Part of the bridge went:

You’ll have a reservation

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For some daybreak syncopation;

That’s where the hoity-toy

Meets the hoi polloi. I’d heard the term hoi polloi many times, but had never looked it up. I hadn’t heard hoity-toy , but it didn’t take much wit to see it as a shortened form of the familiar hoity-toity, meaning “stuck up, superior, snobbish.” It was obvious, too, that “the hoi polloi” was the opposite of “the hoity-toy.”

In about 1947, when I was in college, my friend Rocky King, a fine boogie-woogie pianist, was knocking out “Between 18th and 19th on Chestnut Street” on the piano while I sang the words. A guy named Walt, whose last name I’ve forgotten but who I remember had been an ace fighter pilot and was studying Latin and Greek and classical literature, mentioned that “the hoi polloi” was a redundancy, as hoi was Greek for “the,” and polloi meant “masses"; therefore the hoi polloi would be “the the masses.” To be logical and grammatically sound, we’d have to leave out either “the” or its equivalent, “hoi.” I knew I’d never sing “That’s where the hoity-toy meets hoi polloi"; it wouldn’t scan. I’d leave both the and hoi in. I decided that “the hoi polloi,” though illogical, was lyrically OK. Having made that quick decision, I immediately consigned the whole hoi polloi problem to an obscure corner of my cranial attic.

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That corner got de-obscured recently, and Walt-the-former-ace leapt back into my mind, still in his early 20s, saying, “Geez, I told ya!”

In the column that ran here on Sept. 4, I used the phrase “to impress the hoi polloi,” and I got a small barrage of mail telling me I had goofed. One gentleman, Dr. John Martin Askey, says, “I can see how THE hoi polloi would make the phrase more understandable,” and he asks, “Has usage made it acceptable? I presume so.”

That’s a good question. My Random House says hoi polloi means “the masses” and then adds "(often preceded by the .” Often? It seems to me that hoi polloi is, in fact, almost always preceded by the . My Webster’s New World says, “popularly and redundantly preceded by the .”

John Dryden, back in 1668, wrote, “If by the people you understand the multitude, the hoi polloi , ‘tis no matter what they think . . .” Dryden was a Cambridge grad, class of 1654, and it’s reasonably safe to assume that he’d studied some Greek. He might have left the the in there on purpose, just because he liked it.

John Simon, to no one’s surprise, I should think, is impeccable. In a piece called “No Help for Teachers of English” among his collection of essays “Paradigms Lost,” he says, ". . . he was not about to share us right away with hoi polloi . . . .” As long as there are wise guys like John Simon around, doing things correctly, solecisms like “the hoi polloi” will not be acceptable, I’m afraid.

I turned to Fowler’s Modern English Usage, certain that he would have the definitive word on the subject. I was not disappointed. Fowler says, “hoi polloi. These Greek words for the majority, ordinary people, the man in the street, the common herd, etc., meaning literally ‘the many,’ are equally uncomfortable in English whether the is prefixed to them or not. The best solution is to eschew the phrase altogether, but it is unlikely to be forgotten as long as ‘Iolanthe’ is played.

‘Twould fill with joy and madness stark

the Hoi Polloi (a Greek remark)

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There must be societies of Savoyards who are still doing “Iolanthe,” but we don’t hear much about it, and John Dryden fans are not making much of a racket these days. Still, “the hoi polloi,” wrong as it is, will have staying power; nevertheless, for the sake of what reputation I have, I’ll probably take Fowler’s advice and eschew the phrase altogether, at least in writing.


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