highbrow, lowbrow, middlebrow

My tastes are broad. I appreciate highbrow things such as modern art, classical music (but more so medieval music and 20th-century composers), and scholarly research – all those things that are limned in sesquipedalian disquisitions – but I also appreciate lowbrow things such as naughty jokes, country-style cooking, and the occasional escapist rubbish movie, all those things that are best talked about in plain, plain, plain English. And I do not shun middlebrow things either – the ten thousand daily topics covered in news and conversation, the easy entertainments such as club music, escapes to Disney World and cruise ships, such like… just as long as I’m not stuck in crowds for too long.

Do my tastes make you raise your eyebrows in surprise or an arch look? Or lower them in a glower or scowl or frown? Or do your brows stay in default position, altogether unsurprised?

And what about the words highbrow, lowbrow, and middlebrow?

Did you know that they don’t refer to what you’re doing with your eyebrows?

Nope, they come from 19th-century ideas about the size and shape of the head and its relation to intelligence. People – notably explorers and scientists, but not just them – looked at the skulls of various apes and compared them to human heads. They concluded that the difference in skull shape was an index of level of intelligence, not just between species but within species. A high brow on a man was considered an indicator of superior intelligence; a lower one, and flatter forehead and so on, was considered an indicator of lesser wit and a more bestial nature. (However, too high a brow on a woman was considered less attractive. Hmm.) This was also generalized across races, going by stereotypes.

Don’t even bother acting like you might be surprised by this. That’s how things went in the 19th century: the analytical urge was pressed into service of justifying prejudices and fortifying entrenched power. That still happens, of course, but these days it’s not supposed to happen. (Do you raise an eyebrow?)

All that said, though, the word has acquired different tinges and assumptions and no longer carries, at least for most speakers, implications about the relation of head shape to intelligence. If you wish to object to the use of these words on the basis of their history, it’s understandable, since it is now lodged in your mind, but don’t forget about bulldoze.

Anyway, low-browed as meaning ‘unintelligent, bestial’ actually dates back all the way to the 18th century – those 19th-century ideas didn’t come from nowhere; the first noted scientists to associate skull size with intelligence lived in the 18th century, and it’s not likely that no one had had the thought before. High-browed meaning ‘intelligent, cultivated’ shows up in the 1870s. About 10 years later, highbrow as an adjective shows up, meaning ‘intellectual, cultured’; another 10 years, right around the turn of the century, and it’s also a noun – some highbrow undoubtedly thought of that one. Lowbrow as a single-word adjective and noun showed up at about the same time.

Middlebrow took another quarter of a century to show up. And did it really mean a happy medium? Of course not. Even many middle-class people look down on middle-class things. Mediocre is an insult. Nobody wants the average, even though (obviously) not everyone can have everything above average. (See Lake Wobegon Effect.) Middlebrow refers to the unambitious contented cattle of common culture. Not high enough to be highbrow, but lacking the supposed fun and honesty of the lowbrow. Neither hot nor cold but lukewarm, and thus to be spat out. And yet somehow ubiquitous.

There is an exception. If you’re talking about different levels of usage of English – not levels of correctness but levels of formality and abstraction and detachment – you can use the three levels more ingenuously. They are relative, after all. A paper I just read by Jean Ure (“Introduction: approaches to the study of register range,” International Journal of the Sociology of Language 35 (1982): 5–24) cites R.D. Huddleston et al. (1968) for this distinction:

Specialized register can be classified in English on two dimensions: kind and degree of specialization. For degree of specialization we have the three-point scale recognized by Huddleston…, for which he uses the term ‘brow’: ‘highbrow’, ‘middlebrow’, and ‘lowbrow’, corresponding, in the printed medium, to research articles, university textbooks, and articles for the educated nonspecialist.

Oh, sorry, I forgot to tell you not to take a drink while reading that. Go clean off your screen now if you must. Yes, that’s right: to the truly highbrow, articles for educated audiences are “lowbrow.” What you’re reading right now, right here, on this blog? Lowbrow.

Oh, stop arching your eyebrows so much. It’s unbecoming. Supposedly.

2 responses to “highbrow, lowbrow, middlebrow

  1. There was an article in The New Yorker dealing with this a few years ago…not sure if it was connected with H.G. Wells…

  2. very interesting, i learned something new. makes me wonder if “high art” and “low art” added the cross-section of class.

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