AskDefine | Define highbrow

Dictionary Definition

highbrow adj : highly cultured or educated; "highbrow events such as the ballet or opera"; "a highbrowed literary critic" [syn: highbrowed] n : a person of intellectual or erudite tastes

User Contributed Dictionary



From a compound of the words high and brow, first recorded usage in 1875. Referring to the (by that time discredited) science of phrenology, which suggested that a person of intelligence and sophistication would possess a higher brow-line than someone of lesser intelligence and sophistication.


  1. Intellectually stimulating, highly cultured.



  1. A cultured or learned person or thing.

Related terms


Extensive Definition

For the Transformers Headmaster character see Highbrow (Transformers).
Used 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 and much of post-bebop jazz; to literature, i.e. literary fiction; to films in the arthouse line; and to comedy that requires significant understanding of analogies or references to appreciate. As the former buzzword has lost some currency and sounds slightly passé, its use now gives an impression of mild irony.
The first recorded usage of the word highbrow was in 1884.
The opposite of highbrow is lowbrow, and in between these two concepts is the (much rarer) middlebrow.
The term middlebrow has been used to describe culture that was neither high nor low; it is frequently derogatory, as in Virginia Woolf's unsent letter to the New Statesman, written in the 1930s and later published in the book "The Death of the Moth and Other Essays" (1942). According to the Oxford English Dictionary, the word first appeared in print in 1925, in Punch:

See also



  • Robert Hendrickson, 1997. Encyclopedia of Word and Phrase Origins (New York:Facts on File)
  • a message board post quoting the above book
  • 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.

Further reading

  • 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.
  • Woolf, Virginia. Middlebrow, in The Death of the Moth and other essays.

Synonyms, Antonyms and Related Words

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