Q: I’m interested in whether there’s a name for composite terms like “hanky-panky,” “willy-nilly,” “hurly-burly,” “boogie-woogie,” “hoi polloi,” etc. Can you shed any light on this puzzling category of words?
A: These terms are sometimes called “rhyming compounds.” I wrote a blog entry a few months ago that touched on them. But “hoi polloi” isn’t one of them. It’s the English transliteration of a Greek phrase meaning “the many.” In English, it refers to the masses, often in a negative way.
Many usage experts condemn adding the definite article “the” to “hoi polloi” (as in “The hoi polloi are up in arms”) because “hoi” means “the” in Greek. But the Oxford English Dictionary says the phrase is “normally preceded by the definite article” in English.
In fact, the first published reference in the OED for the English version of “hoi polloi” includes the extra article.
James Fenimore Cooper, in Gleanings in Europe by an American (1837), writes that “a few great men … form the front of every honorary institution … after which the oi polloi are enrolled as they can find interest.” (I’ve filled out the OED citation with excerpts from the book.)
As for rhyming compounds, The Columbia Guide to Standard American English describes them as “catchy and surprisingly durable self-imitating words such as nitty-gritty, hanky-panky, hurdy-gurdy, namby-pamby, and itty-bitty.”
If you’d like to read more about these toothsome twosomes, the book English Words, by Francis Katamba (Routledge, 1994), has an interesting analysis of the linguistic structures of various kinds of rhyming compounds. See page 54.