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Philip Melanchthon, engraving by Albrecht Durer, 1526 ADurerMelancthonengraving1526.jpg
Philip Melanchthon, engraving by Albrecht Dürer, 1526

Used colloquially as a noun or adjective, "highbrow" is synonymous with intellectual; as an adjective, it also means elite, and generally carries a connotation of high culture. The word draws its metonymy from the pseudoscience of phrenology, and was originally simply a physical descriptor. [1]



"Highbrow" can be applied to music, implying most of the classical music tradition; to literature—i.e., literary fiction and poetry; to films in the arthouse line; and to comedy that requires significant understanding of analogies or references to appreciate. The term highbrow is considered by some (with corresponding labels as 'middlebrow' 'lowbrow') as discriminatory or overly selective; [2] and highbrow is currently distanced from the writer by quotation marks: "We thus focus on the consumption of two generally recognised 'highbrow' genres—opera and classical". [3] The first usage in print of highbrow was recorded in 1884. [4] The term was popularized in 1902 by Will Irvin, a reporter for The Sun of New York City, who adhered to the phrenological notion of more intelligent people having high foreheads. [5]


The opposite of highbrow is lowbrow, and between them is middlebrow, describing culture that is neither high nor low; as a usage, middlebrow is derogatory, as in Virginia Woolf's unsent letter to the New Statesman , written in the 1930s and published in The Death of the Moth and Other Essays (1942). According to the Oxford English Dictionary , the word middlebrow first appeared in print in 1925, in Punch : "The BBC claims to have discovered a new type—'the middlebrow'. It consists of people who are hoping that some day they will get used to the stuff that they ought to like". [6] The term had previously appeared in hyphenated form in The Nation , on 25 January 1912:

[T]here is an alarmingly wide chasm, I might almost say a vacuum, between the high-brow, who considers reading either as a trade or as a form of intellectual wrestling, and the low-brow, who is merely seeking for gross thrills. It is to be hoped that culture will soon be democratized through some less conventional system of education, giving rise to a new type that might be called the middle-brow, who will consider books as a source of intellectual enjoyment.

It was popularized by the American writer and poet Margaret Widdemer, whose essay "Message and Middlebrow" appeared in the Review of Literature in 1933. The three genres of fiction, as American readers approached them in the 1950s and as obscenity law differentially judged them, are the subject of Ruth Pirsig Wood, Lolita in Peyton Place: Highbrow, Middlebrow, and Lowbrow Novels, 1995.

Cultural examples

Prince Hamlet was considered by Virginia Woolf as a highbrow lacking orientation in the world once he had lost the lowbrow Ophelia with her grip on earthly realities: this, she thought, explained why in general highbrows "honour so wholeheartedly and depend so completely upon those who are called lowbrows". [7]

See also


  1. Hendrickson, Robert (1997). Encyclopedia of Word and Phrase Origins . New York: Facts on File. 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.
  2. Lawrence W. Levine, "Prologue", Highbrow/Lowbrow: The Emergence of Cultural Hierarchy in America, 1990: 3
  3. Tak Wing Chan, Social Status and Cultural Consumption 2010: 60
  4. "Highbrow" . Oxford English Dictionary (Online ed.). Oxford University Press. (Subscription or participating institution membership required.)
  5. Hendrickson, Robert (1997). Encyclopedia of Word and Phrase Origins . New York: Facts on File. 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 'Tristi' came to be at best a neutral word.)
  6. Quoted in Micki McGee, Yaddo: Making American Culture, 106: McGee outlines the history of the highbrow/lowbrow debate.
  7. A. Fox, Virginia Woolf and the Literature of the English Renaissnce (1990) p. 107

Related Research Articles

Phrenology is a pseudoscience which involves the measurement of bumps on the skull to predict mental traits. It is based on the concept that the brain is the organ of the mind, and that certain brain areas have localized, specific functions or modules. Although both of those ideas have a basis in reality, phrenology extrapolated beyond empirical knowledge in a way that departed from science. The central phrenological notion that measuring the contour of the skull can predict personality traits is discredited by empirical research. Developed by German physician Franz Joseph Gall in 1796, the discipline was influential in the 19th century, especially from about 1810 until 1840. The principal British centre for phrenology was Edinburgh, where the Edinburgh Phrenological Society was established in 1820.

Low comedy, also known as lowbrow humor, in association to comedy, is a dramatic or literary form of popular entertainment without any primary purpose other than to create laughter through boasting, boisterous jokes, drunkenness, scolding, fighting, buffoonery and other riotous activity. It is also characterized by "horseplay", slapstick or farce. Examples include the throwing of a custard pie into another's face. This definition has also expanded to include lewd types of comedy that rely on obvious physical jokes, such as, the wedgie.

Camp is an aesthetic style and sensibility that regards something as appealing because of its bad taste and ironic value. Camp aesthetics disrupt many of modernism's notions of what art is and what can be classified as high art by inverting aesthetic attributes such as beauty, value, and taste through an invitation of a different kind of apprehension and consumption.

Intellectual Person who engages in critical thinking and reasoning

An intellectual is a person who engages in critical thinking, research, and reflection about the reality of society, who may also propose solutions for the normative problems of society, and thus gains authority as a public intellectual.

Philistinism Person whose anti-intellectual social attitude undervalues and despises art and beauty, spirituality and intellect

In the fields of philosophy and aesthetics, the derogatory term philistinism describes the manners, habits, and character of a person whose anti-intellectual social attitude undervalues and despises art and beauty, spirituality and intellect. A philistine is a person of smugly narrow mind and of conventional morality, whose materialistic views and tastes indicate a lack of and an indifference to cultural and aesthetic values.

Dumbing down is the deliberate oversimplification of intellectual content in education, literature, and cinema, news, video games, and culture. Originated in 1933, the term "dumbing down" was movie-business slang, used by screenplay writers, meaning: "[to] revise so as to appeal to those of little education or intelligence". Dumbing-down varies according to subject matter, and usually involves the diminishment of critical thought by undermining standard language and learning standards; thus trivializing academic standards, culture, and meaningful information, as in the case of popular culture.


In the U.S. English slang, egghead is an epithet used to refer to intellectuals or people considered out-of-touch with ordinary people and lacking in realism, common sense, sexual interests, etc. on account of their intellectual interests. It was part of a widespread anti-informed, social propaganda effort that insisted that credentialed intellectuals were not the only smart people, but that serious human intelligence could be found widespread among ordinary people regardless of deprivation of information.

<i>A Room of Ones Own</i> book by Virginia Woolf

A Room of One's Own is an extended essay by Virginia Woolf, first published in September 1929. The work is based on two lectures Woolf delivered in October 1928 at Newnham College and Girton College, women's constituent colleges at the University of Cambridge.

Popular culture studies is the study of popular culture from a critical theory perspective combining communication studies and cultural studies. The first institution to offer bachelor's and master's degrees in Popular Culture is the Bowling Green State University Department of Popular Culture founded by Ray B. Browne.

High culture

High culture encompasses the cultural objects of aesthetic value, which a society collectively esteem as exemplary art, and the intellectual works of philosophy, history, and literature that a society consider representative of their culture.

Cultural capital Concept of social status and social mobility

In the field of sociology, cultural capital comprises the social assets of a person that promote social mobility in a stratified society. Cultural capital functions as a social relation within an economy of practices, and includes the accumulated cultural knowledge that confers social status and power. It comprises all of the material and symbolic goods, without distinction, that society considers rare and worth seeking.

Lowbrow (art movement)

Lowbrow, or lowbrow art, describes an underground visual art movement that arose in the Los Angeles, California area in the late 1960s. It is a populist art movement with its cultural roots in underground comix, punk music, tiki culture, graffiti, and hot-rod cultures of the street. It is also often known by the name pop surrealism. Lowbrow art often has a sense of humor – sometimes the humor is gleeful, sometimes impish, and sometimes it is a sarcastic comment.

The term middlebrow describes easily accessible art, usually literature, and the people who use the arts to acquire culture and "class". First used in the British satire magazine Punch in 1925, the term middlebrow is the intermediary "brow" descriptor between highbrow and lowbrow, which are terms derived from the pseudo-science of phrenology.

Low culture Term for forms of popular culture with mass appeal

"Low culture" is a derogatory term for forms of popular culture that have mass appeal. Its contrast is "high culture", which can also be derogatory. It has been said by culture theorists that both high culture and low culture are subcultures. Popular culture is mass produced by the what has been called by culture analyst Theodor Adorno the "culture industry".

Dwight Macdonald was an American writer, editor, film critic, social critic, philosopher, and activist. Macdonald was a member of the New York Intellectuals and editor of their leftist magazine Partisan Review for six years. He also contributed to other New York publications including Time, The New Yorker, The New York Review of Books, and politics, a journal which he founded in 1944.

Gilbert Seldes

Gilbert Vivian Seldes was an American writer and cultural critic. Seldes served as the editor and drama critic of the seminal modernist magazine The Dial and hosted the NBC television program The Subject is Jazz (1958). He also wrote for other magazines and newspapers like Vanity Fair and the Saturday Evening Post. He was most interested in American popular culture and cultural history. He wrote and adapted for Broadway, including Lysistrata and A Midsummer Night's Dream in the 1930s. Later, he made films, wrote radio scripts and became the first director of television for CBS News and the founding dean of the Annenberg School for Communication at the University of Pennsylvania.

Lowbrow may refer to:

Postmodernist film is a classification for works that articulate the themes and ideas of postmodernism through the medium of cinema. Some of the goals of postmodernist film are to subvert the mainstream conventions of narrative structure and characterization, and to test the audience's suspension of disbelief. Typically, such films also break down the cultural divide between high and low art and often upend typical portrayals of gender, race, class, genre, and time with the goal of creating something that does not abide by traditional narrative expression.

Perry Meisel, Professor of English at New York University for over forty years until his retirement in 2016, has written on literature, music, psychoanalysis, theory, and culture since the 1970s. His articles have appeared in The Village Voice, The New York Times Book Review, Partisan Review, October, The Nation, The Atlantic, and many other publications. His books include The Myth of Popular Culture from Dante to Dylan, The Literary Freud, The Cowboy and the Dandy, The Myth of the Modern, The Absent Father, and Thomas Hardy: The Return of the Repressed. He is co-editor, with Haun Saussy, of Ferdinand de Saussure's Course in General Linguistics, and co-editor, with Walter Kendrick, of Bloomsbury/Freud: The Letters of James and Alix Strachey, 1924–25. He is also editor of Freud: A Collection of Critical Essays. He received his B.A., M. Phil, and Ph.D. from Yale.

On 2 April 2013, analysis of the results of the Great British Class Survey was published online. The survey was developed in collaboration with academics from the University of Manchester, the London School of Economics and Political Science, and the University of York. The research has been published in the journal Sociology. The findings are also described in a book, Social Class in the 21st Century, by Mike Savage, Niall Cunningham, Fiona Devine, Sam Friedman, Daniel Laurison, Lisa Mckenzie, Andrew Miles, Helene Snee and Paul Wakeling. The results released were based on a survey of 325,000 adults, 160,000 residents of Britain most of whom lived in England and described themselves as "white." Class as a multi-dimensional construct was defined and measured according to the amount and kind of economic, cultural, and social capital reported. Economic capital was defined as income and assets; cultural capital as amount and type of cultural interests and activities, and social capital as the quantity and social status of their friends, family and personal and business contacts. This theoretical framework was developed by Pierre Bourdieu who first published his theory of social distinction in 1979.


Further reading