The phrase probably became known to English scholars through Pericles' Funeral Oration, as mentioned in Thucydides' History of the Peloponnesian War. Pericles uses it in a positive way when praising the Athenian democracy, contrasting it with hoi oligoi, "the few" (Greek: , see also oligarchy).
Its current English usage originated in the early 19th century, a time when it was generally accepted that one must be familiar with Greek and Latin in order to be considered well educated. The phrase was originally written in Greek letters. Knowledge of these languages served to set apart the speaker from hoi polloi in question, who were not similarly educated.
Pronunciation depends on the speaker:
English speakers pronounce it .
Ancient Greek speakers pronounced it [hoi polloi]. Double- is pronounced as such.
Modern Greek speakers pronounce it [i poli] since in Modern Greek there is no voiceless glottal /h/ phoneme and is pronounced [i] (all Ancient Greek diphthongs are now pronounced as monophthongs). Greek Cypriots still pronounce the double- ([i polli]).
Some linguistic prescriptivists and students of ancient Greek argue that, given that hoi is a definite article, the phrase "the hoi polloi" is redundant, akin to saying "the the masses". Others argue that this is inconsistent with other English loanwords. The word "alcohol", for instance, derives from the Arabic al-kuhl, al being an article, yet "the alcohol" is universally accepted as good grammar.
There have been numerous uses of the term in English literature. James Fenimore Cooper, author of The Last of the Mohicans, is often credited with making the first recorded usage of the term in English. The first recorded use by Cooper occurs in his 1837 work Gleanings in Europe where he writes "After which the oi polloi are enrolled as they can find interest."
Lord Byron had, in fact, previously used the term in his letters and journal. In one journal entry, dated 24 November 1813, Byron writes "I have not answered W. Scott's last letter,but I will. I regret to hear from others, that he has lately been unfortunate in pecuniary involvements. He is undoubtedly the Monarch of Parnassus, and the most English of bards. I should place Rogers next in the living list (I value him more as the last of the best school) Moore and Campbell both thirdSouthey and Wordsworth and Coleridgethe rest, [hoi polloi in Greek]thus: (see image reproduced on this page).
Byron also wrote an 1821 entry in his journal "... one or two others, with myself, put on masks, and went on the stage with the 'oi polloi."
While Charles Darwin was at the University of Cambridge from 1828 to 1831, undergraduates used the term "hoi polloi" or "Poll" for those reading for an ordinary degree, the "pass degree". At that time only capable mathematicians would take the Tripos or honours degree. In his autobiography written in the 1870s, Darwin recalled that "By answering well the examination questions in Paley, by doing Euclid well, and by not failing miserably in Classics, I gained a good place among the , or crowd of men who do not go in for honours."
W. S. Gilbert used the term in 1882 when he wrote the libretto of the comic opera Iolanthe. In Act I, the following exchange occurs between a group of disgruntled fairies who are arranging to elevate a lowly shepherd to the peerage, and members of the House of Lords who will not hear of such a thing:
PEERS: Our lordly style
You shall not quench
With base canaille!
FAIRIES: (That word is French.)
PEERS: Distinction ebbs
Before a herd
Of vulgar plebs!
FAIRIES: (A Latin word.)
PEERS: 'Twould fill with joy,
And madness stark
The hoi polloi!
FAIRIES: (A Greek remark.)
Gilbert's parallel use of canaille, plebs (plebeians), and hoi polloi makes it clear that the term is derogatory of the lower classes. In many versions of the vocal score, it is written as " ", likely confusing generations of amateur choristers who had not had the advantages of a British Public School education.
John Dryden used the phrase in his Essay of Dramatick Poesie, published in 1668. Dryden spells the phrase with Greek letters, but the rest of the sentence is in English (and he does precede it with "the").