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Highbrow


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.

"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; 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". The first usage in print of highbrow was recorded in 1884. The term was popularized in 1902 by Will Irvin, a reporter for The Sun who adhered to the phrenological notion of more intelligent people having high foreheads.

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". The term had previously appeared in hyphenated form in 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.
  • Richard A. Peterson and Roger M. Kern, "Changing Highbrow Taste: From Snob to Omnivore" American Sociological Review 61.5 (October 1996), pp. 900–907. Extensive bibliography.
  • Arnold, Matthew. Culture and Anarchy.
  • Eliot, T.S.. Notes Towards the Definition of Culture (New York: Harcourt Brace) 1949.
  • Lamont, Michèle and Marcel Fournier, editors. Cultivating Differences: Symbolic Boundaries and the Making of Inequality (Chicago: University of Chicago Press) 1992. Includes Peter A. Richardson and Allen Simkus, "How musical taste groups mark occupational status groups" pp 152–68.
  • Levine, Lawrence W. Highbrow/Lowbrow: The Emergence of Cultural Hierarchy in America (Cambridge MA: Harvard University Press) 1988.
  • Lynes, Russell. The Tastemakers (New York: Harper and Row) 1954.
  • Radway, Janice A. Feeling for Books: The Book-of-the-Month Club, Literary Taste, and Middle-Class Desire.
  • Rubin, Joan Shelley. The Making of Middle-Brow Culture (Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press) 1992.
  • Swirski, Peter. From Lowbrow to Nobrow. Montreal, London: McGill-Queen's University Press 2005
  • Woolf, Virginia. Middlebrow, in The Death of the Moth and other essays.
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