Highbrow and lowbrow come from phrenology, the 19th-century peudo-science of regarding the shape of the skull as a key to intelligence. Is highbrow — that man of high thoughts and high culture — the sort of person we all aspire to be? Or is the highbrow with his pretensions of superiority an object of disdain?
Dictionaries vary in terms of how much judgement — negative or positive – they suggest is inherent in the meaning of the word. For example, Oxford English Dictionary describes the colloquial usage as “occasionally somewhat depreciative”; Oxford Dictionaries, labeling it simply “derogatory”, defines it as “intellectual or rarefied in taste.” The American Webster’s New World College Dictionary lists the adjective as “often a pejorative term”, and Collins English Dictionary suggests that only the British usage of the adjective is “often derogatory” — but not the American. Certainly in the early 20th century there appeared to be a difference in perception between American and British thinkers about how the highbrow should be regarded: with a heavy dose of either reverence or disdain depending on which side of the Atlantic you were on. As James Seaton explained in his Literary Criticism from Plato to Postmodernism a few years ago:
“Van Wyck Brooks [the American literary critic] believed that the division into “Highbrow” and “Lowbrow” was peculiarly American, a result of the continuing influence of the Puritan heritage that did not affect other societies. Brooks confides that ‘I have proposed these terms to a Russian, an Englishman and a German, asking each in turn whether in his country there was anything to correspond with the conceptions implied in them. In each case they have been returned to me as quite American, authentically our own.’ In 1932, however, Virginia Woolf observed in “Middlebrow,”** an essay not published until after her death, that in England ‘the finest minds of our age have lately been engaged in debating, not without that passion which befits a noble cause, what a highbrow is and what a lowbrow.’ For Woolf, however, ‘highbrow’ and ‘lowbrow’ have a quite different significance than they do for Brooks. In American usage, Brooks notes, both terms have ‘a derogatory sense.’ In contrast, Woolf considers both terms true honorifics. She has ‘always been so proud to be called highbrow’ and asserts that ‘if I could be more of a highbrow I would.’ Conversely, lowbrows are also worthy of respect, and they are in fact respected by highbrows: ‘I honour and respect lowbrows — and I have never known a highbrow who did not.’
“Woolf objects, however, to middlebrows — ‘They are the people, I confess, that I seldom regard with entire cordiality.’ The closest Woolf comes to a description of middlebrows is her description of them as ‘go-betweens: they are the busybodies who run from one to the other [from highbrows to lowbrows] with their tittle tattle and make all the mischief.'”
Highbrow in Fowler’s Modern English Usage — at least in its first edition published in the 1920s and with corrections in the 1940s — is addressed along with the word mugwump, another American word or colloquialism of the time with a slightly obscure slang meaning of “sometimes obnoxious self-importance”. Here’s how H. W. Fowler defined highbrow back then: “A person observed or imagined to take a superior attitude toward the generality of mankind; Any person of the intellectual classes.”
Hmmm: and so we might ask the same question about the word intellectual, whose entry highbrow redirects to in the revised Modern English Usage of the 1960s. Fowler says this about the difference between intelligent and intellectual: “While an intelligent person is merely one who is not stupid or slow-witted, an intellectual person is one in whom the part played by the mind as distinguished from the emotions & perceptions is greater than in the average man. An intellectual person who was not intelligent would be, though not impossible, a rarity; but an intelligent person who is not intellectual we most of us flatter ourselves that we can find in the looking-glass. Intelligent is always a commendatory though sometimes a patronizing epithet; intellectual, though implying the possession of qualities we should all like to have, is tainted in the communist ideology by its use in disparaging contrast to workers; elsewhere too it is seldom untinged by suspicion or dislike.”
Intelligent vs. intellectual is another story, perhaps best addressed in a future post some time.
* Mugwump: World Wide Words: “There is also a slangy sense — less known these days, I believe — of a person who has been persuaded by his possession of a minor official position into a sense of self-importance, often becoming obnoxious as a result.
** Life magazine coined the term ‘middlebrow’ in the mid-1940s.
More on highbrow & lowbrow:
From Etymology Online Dictionary: A ‘high’ forehead meant intelligence; a ‘low’ one meant stupidity. A “person who is not intellectual,” 1902, from low (adj.) + brow. Said to have been coined or popularized by U.S. journalist Will Irwin (1873-1948). A low brow on a man as a sign of primitive qualities was common in 19c. fiction, but it also was considered a mark of classical beauty in women. “A low brow and not a very high one is considered beautiful in woman, whereas a high brow and not a low one is the stamp of manhood.” — Medical Review, June 2, 1894. As an adjective from 1913.
Houghton Mifflin Word Origins gives us the following: Highbrow seems to have come first, most likely around 1903, but lowbrow is close on its heels. In 1906 we have examples of both. That year the writer O. Henry refers to “the $250 that I screwed out of the high-browed and esteemed B. Merwin during your absence.” As for lowbrow, we find it in S. Ford’s Shorty McCabe: “The spaghetti works was in full blast, with a lot of husky low-brows goin’ in and out.” In Collier’s the next year is a reference to “the overwhelming majority of Low Brows, who never read ‘Peer Gynt.'” And in the Saturday Evening Post for 1908, we see highbrows again: “It takes all sorts of men to make a party, and Mr. Hearst apparently led in a few prize-fighters with the other high-brows and reformers he accumulated.”