Archive

ShareThis Page
The Word Guy: Greek phrase ‘hoi polloi’ stirs mass confusion | TribLIVE.com
More Lifestyles

The Word Guy: Greek phrase ‘hoi polloi’ stirs mass confusion

Tribune-Review
| Friday, November 7, 2014 8:57 p.m.

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

Answers:

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.

TribLIVE commenting policy

You are solely responsible for your comments and by using TribLive.com you agree to our Terms of Service.

We moderate comments. Our goal is to provide substantive commentary for a general readership. By screening submissions, we provide a space where readers can share intelligent and informed commentary that enhances the quality of our news and information.

While most comments will be posted if they are on-topic and not abusive, moderating decisions are subjective. We will make them as carefully and consistently as we can. Because of the volume of reader comments, we cannot review individual moderation decisions with readers.

We value thoughtful comments representing a range of views that make their point quickly and politely. We make an effort to protect discussions from repeated comments either by the same reader or different readers

We follow the same standards for taste as the daily newspaper. A few things we won't tolerate: personal attacks, obscenity, vulgarity, profanity (including expletives and letters followed by dashes), commercial promotion, impersonations, incoherence, proselytizing and SHOUTING. Don't include URLs to Web sites.

We do not edit comments. They are either approved or deleted. We reserve the right to edit a comment that is quoted or excerpted in an article. In this case, we may fix spelling and punctuation.

We welcome strong opinions and criticism of our work, but we don't want comments to become bogged down with discussions of our policies and we will moderate accordingly.

We appreciate it when readers and people quoted in articles or blog posts point out errors of fact or emphasis and will investigate all assertions. But these suggestions should be sent via e-mail. To avoid distracting other readers, we won't publish comments that suggest a correction. Instead, corrections will be made in a blog post or in an article.