• Highbrow, lowbrow, middlebrow: HIGHBROW/LOWBROW - "Dr. Franz Joseph Gall (1758-1828), founder of the 'science' of phrenology, gave support to the old folk notion that people with big foreheads have more brains." The theory, later discredited, "led to the expression 'highbrow' for an intellectual, which is first recorded in 1875.New York Sun reporter Will Irvin popularized 'highbrow,' and its opposite 'lowbrow' in 1902, basing his creation on the wrongful notion that people with high foreheads have bigger brains and are more intelligent and intellectual than those with low foreheads. At first the term was complimentary, but 'highbrow' came to be at best a neutral word .Life magazine coined the term 'middlebrow' in the mid-1940s." From "Encyclopedia of Word and Phrase Origins" by Robert Hendrickson (Facts on File, New York, 1997). Calling some activity or entertainment or cultural event by one of these three terms is very chancy these days. There is no general agreement or clear dividing line to clarify where (for example) middlebrow begins and ends. Unless you are willing to stand your ground against verbal attack, it's best to avoid the classifications. (But hey, being reckless, I'll give you a quick self-test: was your favorite film of the past year Adaptation, My Big Fat Greek Wedding, or Jackass? They are high, middle, low.) Origin: 1903 Americans can claim credit for both highbrow and lowbrow, the upper and lower levels of culture and cultivation. 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." From the start, both terms were applied with tongue in cheek. They referred to the discredited phrenological notion that a person of superior intellect and culture would have a high forehead while an ignorant boor would have a low one. A 1916 reviewer in The Nation took the distinction more seriously. Highbrow and lowbrow, he said, "stand for more genuine differences than Democrat and Republican. The one class has ideals, but no experience; it has flowered in an unfruitful transcendentalism. The other class has experience, but no ideals; its finished product is the millionaire. Each class looks with contempt, or rather with indifference, upon the other." The reviewer lamented this split, but in fact the two extremes of American culture seem to have prevented either side from taking itself too seriously. In the rest of the twentieth century both highbrows and lowbrows have had such success that American science, scholarship, and art on the one hand and practical inventions and popular culture on the other have swept throughout the world.
  • In the 'science' of phrenology which was very popular in the mid to late 1800's, it was believed that the bumps and ridges on someone's skull could be 'read' or interpreted to learn about that person's psychological aptitudes and tendencies. Having a high eyebrow line was supposed to indicate great intellectual capacity, and vice versa.

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