The Grammarphobia Blog

Is “higher” in “hierarchy”?

Q: Years ago I had to look up a word that combined “church” and “monopoly.” I can’t remember it. Do you know the word?

A: We’d guess that your memory is playing tricks here. We know of no word—unless it’s a deliberate joke—that combines “church” with “monopoly.”

Words that end in “-poly” have to do with more earthly business—selling. For example, a “monopoly” is a market dominated by one seller; an “oligopoly” is one dominated by a few.

This word ending comes from the Greek verb polein, which means to sell. (In Greek, mono means single and oligoi means few.)

The word you’re trying to remember may be “hierarchy,” whose original, literal meaning was “sacred rule.”

It comes ultimately from the Greek words hieros (sacred) and archein (to rule). So etymologically, there’s no “higher” in “hierarchy.” 

In church matters, “hierarchy” has a different meaning from the one that’s developed in modern, secular usage.

When first recorded in English around 1380, “hierarchy,” which grew out of writings in Christian mysticism, had to do with the divisions among celestial beings.

In its earliest English sense, according to the Oxford English Dictionary, “hierarchy” meant “each of the three divisions of angels, every one comprising three orders, in the system of Dionysius the Areopagite.”

The word in this sense can also mean “the collective body of angels” or “the angelic host,” the dictionary says.

Elsewhere, within its entry for the word “cherub,” the OED explains that according to a fourth-century work attributed to Dionysius the Areopagite, “the heavenly beings are divided into three hierarchies, each containing three orders or choirs.”

The nine orders are seraphim, cherubim, thrones; dominions, virtues, powers; principalities, archangels, angels.

The word “hierarchy” acquired a new meaning in the mid-1500s, when it came to mean, in the words of the OED, “rule or dominion in holy things; priestly rule or government; a system of ecclesiastical rule.”

Less than a century later, in the early 1600s, it took on a more concrete meaning in the church: “The collective body of ecclesiastical rulers; an organized body of priests or clergy in successive orders or grades.”

Ralph Waldo Emerson used the word in this sense when he wrote in his book English Traits (1856): “When the hierarchy is afraid of science and education … there is nothing left but to quit.”

The modern sense of the word, defined by the OED as “a body of persons or things ranked in grades, orders, or classes, one above another,” was first recorded in the mid-1600s.

English words that end in “-archy” include “monarchy,” which is government by a single ruler, and “oligarchy,” government by a few. Other such words include “matriarchy” (literally, rule by women), “patriarchy” (rule by men), and “anarchy” (without rule).

Just as there are names for such rulers—“monarch,” “oligarch,” “matriarch,” “patriarch”—there’s a corresponding word for a sacred ruler: “hierarch.”

In ancient Greek, the word hierarches meant a chief priest or leader of sacred rites, according to the Chambers Dictionary of Etymology.

This word became hierarcha in medieval Latin and “hierarch” in English, where it was first applied to angels. Later, in the 1500s, it came to mean an ecclesiastical ruler like a pope, archbishop, prelate, and so on.

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