The Word Guy: Greek phrase ‘hoi polloi’ stirs mass confusion
Sometimes, we think we know a word’s meaning but really don’t. Until a few years ago, for instance, I thought “hoi polloi” meant “the elite, the upper crust.”
This probably stemmed from my mother’s frequent references to the rich folks in our town as “the hoi polloi,” and, believe me, my family wasn’t among them.
In fact, “hoi polloi,” a Greek phrase for “the many,” means the exact opposite: “the masses, the common people.” Some say this confusion arises because “hoi polloi” sounds so similar to “hoity toity” (haughty, pretentious).
We often confuse the meanings of other commonly used words, as well. Which definition for each of these words is accurate?
1. Disingenuous: a. deceptive, calculating, playfully insincere, or b. naive, unsophisticated
2. Nonplussed: a. surprised, bewildered, perplexed, or b. indifferent, unimpressed, unfazed
3. Crescendo: a. a high point, epitome, or b. a gradual increase in intensity
4. Enormity: a. huge size, enormousness, or b. great wickedness or catastrophe
5. Fulsome: a. copious, abundant, full, or b. excessive, offensively overdone
1. a. Perhaps because of confusion with “ingenuous” (innocent, candid, unsuspecting), some people mistakenly use “disingenuous” to mean “naive.”
2. a. When one of my carefully crafted discussion questions fails to ignite student debate in my class, I’m nonplussed — puzzled, upset — not indifferent or unfazed.
3. b. In music, a “crescendo” is a gradual increase in volume, and by extension, it has come to mean any progressive increase. But many people use “crescendo” to mean the end point of that increase: a loud sound or climax of intensity, e.g., “The complaints reached a crescendo.”
4. b. “Enormity” should not be used as a general term for anything of large size or scope, because it bears a strong negative connotation, e.g., “the enormity of the tornado’s destruction,” “the enormity of Hitler’s evil.”
5. b. This is tricky because “fulsome,” which originally did mean “copious, abundant,” came to mean “excessive, overdone” during the 1600s. Then, during the early 1900s, people started using it with its original positive meaning. Today, the danger in using “fulsome” to mean “abundant” is ambiguity. Praising an elegant speech as “fulsome,” for instance, might be viewed as disparaging it.
Rob Kyff is a teacher in West Hartford, Conn. Send reports of misuse and abuse, as well as examples of good writing, to Wordguy@aol.com or to Rob Kyff, Creators Syndicate, 737 Third St., Hermosa Beach, CA 90254.