Private meanings

In World Wide Words #802 yesterday, Michael Quinion, following up on his discussion of hoity-toity in the previous issue, passed on a piece of mail:

Lucie Singh wondered if hoity-toity was “at the heart of so many people thinking that hoi polloi means the upper crust (often perceived to be haughty etc) rather than the great unwashed? This misapprehension is rampant in the States.”

The meanings of ordinary (rather than technical) vocabulary are learned in context, not by explicit definition, so though there will be widespread agreement on these meanings, there will also be considerable variation, following from individual differences in linguistic experience and in the interpretation of this experience; there will be a range of “private meaning” differing in detail from the shared meaning of items.

In some cases, though, private meanings can diverge starkly from the meanings most people have. I talked about a few such cases in a 2009 Language Log posting, and this divergent understanding of hoi polloi looks like another case, but with complications.

Items with strong affective connotations — like ritzy ‘expensively stylish’ (in my LLog piece) and hoi polloi ‘the masses, common people’ — are especially likely  to pick up divergent private meanings: you can perceive the affect but not be able to determine from context whether the affect is positive or negative (ritzy and hoi polloi as admiring or derogatory).

First complication: although private meanings arise person by person, some are likely to arise many times independently, so that, though private in one sense, they can be reasonably frequent. Eggcorns are similar; cold slaw for older cole slaw is such a natural re-shaping that it was probably created many times independently.

Second complication: private meanings can spread from an originator to others, by the usual paths of spread. When this happens, what was at first an entirely private meaning can become a shared meaning — shared in some social group, but not necessarily in larger groups (that is, it can still be a minority option, though it might be frequent). Again, this happens with eggcorns, many of which are now just minority variants, not fresh creations. (Eventually, of course, a private meaning or eggcorn can overtake the competition and become the majority variant.)

Quinion’s (U.K.) correspondent Lucie Singh thinks that hoi polloi ‘upper crust’ (possibly invidious) is now “rampant” in the U.S. Such assessments of frequency in some social group are notoriously unreliable; Singh might merely have noticed a few instances of the usage, which would stand out for her, from Americans and extrapolated from these surprises to a generalization about American usage. In this case, I don’t know what the facts are, and they wouldn’t be easy to discover.

Now, Singh’s speculation about the influence of hoity-toity on hoi polloi (to yield hoi polloi ‘the upper crust’, possibly viewed as haughty) is phonologically plausible. And it would fit in with a related private meaning for hoi polloi, reported by commenter mgh on my LLog posting on private meanings:

My grandmother, I’m told, used to use “hoi polloi” to mean “too big for your britches,” as in “don’t you go getting all hoi polloi with me,” presumably confusing it with “hoity toity”.

There’s plenty of room here for meaning shifts.



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