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 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 1912:

The Nation, 25th of 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 (3rd ed.). Oxford University Press. September 2005. (Subscription or UK public library 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


  • 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.
  • 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.
An Experiment in Criticism

An Experiment in Criticism is a 1961 book by C. S. Lewis in which he proposes that the quality of books should be measured not by how they are written, but by how they are read. To do this, the author describes two kinds of readers. One is what he calls the "unliterary", and the other the "literary". He proceeds to outline some of the differences between these two types of readers. For example, one characterization of an unliterary reader is that the argument "I've read it before" is a conclusive reason not to read a book. In contrast, literary readers reread books many times, savouring certain passages, and attempting to glean more from subsequent readings.

Lewis also argued that judging books by whether they are "lowbrow" or "highbrow" is not necessarily fruitful; many "lowbrow" books prove to be valuable to a literary reader willing to approach without prejudgment. He noted that books classified as "lowbrow", such as science fiction, are also capable of inducing a passion to re-read and imparting experience which changes reader's worldview. Lewis suggests that books which are capable of doing this may prove to have enduring merit regardless of their genre of origin. He suggested that attempting to judge the literary merit of books based on traditional criteria may not prove fruitful.

Thus Lewis suggests that a "quality book" may be defined as one that someone – anyone – will re-read. Some such books will be judged by "highbrow" readers as being of poor quality; this view is deficient in that it has failed to appreciate those qualities which have merited re-reading.


BBC Two is the second flagship television channel of the British Broadcasting Corporation in the United Kingdom, Isle of Man and Channel Islands. It covers a wide range of subject matter, but tends to broadcast more "highbrow" programmes than the more mainstream and popular BBC One. Like the BBC's other domestic TV and radio channels, it is funded by the television licence, and is therefore free of commercial advertising. It is a comparatively well-funded public-service network, regularly attaining a much higher audience share than most public-service networks worldwide.

Originally styled BBC2, it was the third British television station to be launched (starting on 21 April 1964), and from 1 July 1967, Europe's first television channel to broadcast regularly in colour. It was envisaged as a home for less mainstream and more ambitious programming, and while this tendency has continued to date, most special-interest programmes of a kind previously broadcast on BBC Two, for example the BBC Proms, now tend to appear on BBC Four instead.


A bahuvrihi compound (from Sanskrit: बहुव्रीहि, literally meaning "much rice" but denoting a rich man) is a type of compound that denotes a referent by specifying a certain characteristic or quality the referent possesses. A bahuvrihi is exocentric, so that the compound is not a hyponym of its head. For instance, a sabretooth (smil-odon) is neither a sabre nor a tooth, but a feline with sabre-like teeth.

In Sanskrit bahuvrihis, the last constituent is a noun—more strictly, a nominal stem—while the whole compound is an adjective. In Vedic Sanskrit the accent is regularly on the first member (tatpurusha rāja-pútra "a king's son", but bahuvrihi rājá-putra "having kings as sons", viz. rājá-putra-, m., "father of kings", rājá-putrā-, f., "mother of kings"), with the exception of a number of non-nominal prefixes such as the privative a; the word bahuvrīhí is itself likewise an exception to this rule.

In English bahuvrihis can be identified and the last constituent is usually a noun, while the whole compound is a noun or an adjective. The accent is on the first constituent. English bahuvrihis often describe people using synecdoche: flatfoot, half-wit, highbrow, lowlife, redhead, tenderfoot, long-legs, and white-collar.


DR2 (DR To) is the second television channel operated by the Danish Broadcasting Corporation (DR) in Denmark. It covers a wide range of subject matter, but tending towards more "highbrow" programmes than the more mainstream and popular DR1. Like DR's other TV and radio channels, it is funded by a media licence, and is therefore commercial-free.

It was launched in 1996 as a satellite-/cable-only channel. This was highly controversial at the time, as it was considered close to a breach of public service principles that the new station did not reach all viewers. Adding to the critics' cause was the fact that DR did in fact have broadband spectrum available for terrestrial broadcasts. However, this was being reserved for digital broadcasting tests. The less-than-100%-coverage coupled with a "highbrow" reputation resulted in low ratings which in turn earned it the nickname "the secret channel" to the regret of the director general who had been pushing the line "my channel" (in the sense of programmes appealing to individuals, not the whole family as DR1 supposedly). This was finally remedied on 31 March 2006, when terrestrial digital broadcasts started.

It most resembles the British BBC Four in that its main output is experimental comedy, documentaries and in-depth news programmes. It has earned much praise for high quality shows, especially in the first category, with series like Casper & Mandrilaftalen and Drengene fra Angora. Den 11. time was a talk show on the channel.

It also broadcasts many British productions, e.g. crime dramas such as Prime Suspect.

Every Saturday DR2 broadcasts the Greenlandic language News bulletin Nyheder fra Grønland produced by KNRBetween 8 and 10:30 pm Wednesdays, various European thriller series are aired. And every Friday at 8.pm , a rather recently produced film is aired. At late Sunday afternoons (ending at 8 pm), a classic film is broadcast. Typically from the late 1960's until the mid 1990's. The news, called "Deadline" (in Danish) is on at 10:30 pm, and differs from DR 1's "TV-Avisen" in just giving a brief overview of today's events, the followed by (usually) two news that is treated more deep. DR2 is sometimes used as "Breaking News" , but only when really called for. The channel also covers society issues and various types of society-related debates.

Following the introduction of digital television (and closing down of all analogue channels with exception of cable-TV) in Denmark, on 1 November 2009, the channel is broadcast free-to-air via a public DVB-T and MPEG-4 system. It now reaches the whole country and also the nearby east side of Øresund sea to southernmost Sweden. (Swedish channels reaches the Copenhagen metropolitan area as well)

In 2013 the channel was rebranded and converted to a 24-hour channel with the inclusion of hourly news and current affairs programming. DR Update previously aired some of the programming before the channel was closed to make room for DR Ultra. DR2, unlike DR Update will however not interrupt any programmes for breaking news.

The channel switched from SD to 720p HD broadcasting on 28 February 2017.

Dime museum

Dime museums were institutions that were popular at the end of the 19th century in the United States. Designed as centers for entertainment and moral education for the working class (lowbrow), the museums were distinctly different from upper middle class' cultural events (highbrow). In urban centers like New York City, where many immigrants settled, dime museums were popular and cheap entertainment. The social trend reached its peak during the Progressive Era (c. 1890–1920). Although lowbrow entertainment, they were the starting places for the careers of many notable vaudeville-era entertainers including Harry Houdini, Lew Fields, Joe Weber, and Maggie Cline.

Erik Larsen

Erik J. Larsen (born December 8, 1962) is an American comic book writer, artist and publisher. He is known for his work on Savage Dragon, as one of the founders of Image Comics, and for his work on Spider-Man for Marvel Comics.


Flavorwire is a New York City-based online culture magazine. The site includes original feature articles, interviews, reviews, as well as content recycled from other sources. Flavorwire describes themselves as "a network of culturally connected people, covering events, art, books, music, film, TV, and pop culture the world over. Highbrow, lowbrow, and everything in between: if it’s compelling we’re talking about it." Flavorwire is owned by Flavorpill Media.

Going Highbrow

Going Highbrow is a 1935 American comedy-musical film directed by Robert Florey. Guy Kibbee and Zazu Pitts play a newly rich couple, so eager to buy their way into society they hire a waitress to pose as their daughter.

Highbrow (disambiguation)

Highbrow may refer to:

Highbrow, as a noun and adjective

Highbrow (Transformers), three fictional characters in the Transformers series

Going Highbrow, a 1935 American comedy-musical film

Hirculops cornifer

Hirculops cornifer, the highbrow rockskipper, is a species of combtooth blenny found in the western Indian ocean. This species reaches a length of 6 centimetres (2.4 in) SL. This species is the only known member of its genus.

MBK Entertainment

MBK Entertainment (Hangul: MBK 엔터테인먼트), is a South Korean entertainment company established in 2007 by Kim Kwang-soo. The label was formerly known as Core Contents Media, established on January 9, 2007 as the subsidiary label of CJ E&M Music

On October 1, 2014, it was announced that Core Contents Media had been acquired by MBK Co., Ltd. (formerly CS ELSOLAR Co., Ltd.) and renamed as MBK Entertainment. MBK is an abbreviation for "Music Beyond Korea".

The label is home to artists like Shannon, HIGHBROW, DIA, and formerly home to artists like T-ara, SG Wannabe, Seeya, and Davichi.

In May 2018, the label executive producer Kim Kwang-soo revealed that he had secretly partnership with PD Han Kyeong-cheon to form survival program The Unit: Idol Rebooting Project. He also confirmed that he would be focused as producer for winning group UNB and UNI.T.In October 2018, MBK and MBC launched a talent show titled Under Nineteen, a contests for male trainees under the age of 19 years old to compete for a spot to be in a new K-pop idol group 1THE9. Although the winner would sign 17 months contract, which five months as contestants in MBC and twenty months to debut as idols under MBK.

Meenda Sorgam

Meenda Sorgam (lit. Paradise regained) is a 1960 Tamil-language Indian romantic musical film, written and directed by C. V. Sridhar, produced by T. A. Durai Raj and distributed by Madhuram Pictures. The film's soundtrack was composed by T. Chalapathi Rao. The film stars Gemini Ganesan, Padmini and Tambaram Lalitha in the lead roles, with K. A. Thangavelu T. R. Ramachandran, Manorama and K. Nadarajan in supporting roles. The film did not do well as expected, as it was thought to be too highbrow and idealistic.


The term middlebrow describes easily accessible art, usually literature, and the people who use the arts to acquire culture and "class" (social prestige). 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.The term middlebrow became a pejorative usage in the modernist cultural criticism, by Dwight Macdonald, Virginia Woolf, and Russell Lynes, which served the cause of the marginalization of the popular culture in favor of high culture. Culturally, the middlebrow is classed as a forced and ineffective attempt at cultural and intellectual achievement, and as characterizing literature that emphasizes emotional and sentimental connections, rather than intellectual quality and literary innovation; although postmodernism more readily perceives the advantages of the middlebrow cultural-position that is aware of high culture, but is able to balance aesthetic claims with the claims of the everyday world.

National Society of Film Critics

The National Society of Film Critics (NSFC) is an American film critic organization. The organization is known for its highbrow tastes, and its annual awards are one of the most prestigious film critics awards in the United States. As of January 2014 the NSFC have approximately 60 members who write for a variety of weekly and daily newspapers along with major publications and media outlets.

Pops orchestra

A pops orchestra is an orchestra that plays popular music (generally traditional pop) and show tunes as well as well-known classical works. Pops orchestras are generally organised in large cities and are distinct from the more "highbrow" symphony or philharmonic orchestras which also may exist in the same city. This is not to say that the distinction is complete; many symphony orchestras (for instance, the Detroit Symphony Orchestra and Buffalo Philharmonic Orchestra) put on pops performances with some regularity, while other pops orchestras are actually second identities of the "highbrow" orchestra and composed largely of the same players (for instance, the Boston Pops Orchestra is composed primarily of Boston Symphony Orchestra members).

Respect (magazine)

RESPECT. is a New York-based hip hop and photojournalism magazine founded in 2009 by Jonathan Rheingold. The publication covers hip hop culture, focusing on music, photography, and style. As opposed to mainstream hip-hop magazines, RESPECT.'s aesthetic is more highbrow, targeting a "sophisticated and intelligent reader." Its circulation is approximately 250,000 per issue.

Rheingold was previously the executive publisher of Harris Publications, home to hip-hop publications such as XXL and Scratch. After leaving Harris in 2009, he launched RESPECT. with the help of such industry vets as kris ex, Paul Scirecalabrisotto, and Sally Berman.Each issue of RESPECT. features interviews with popular hip-hop artists. Past covers -- including digital -- have included Drake, A$AP Ferg, Waka Flocka, Big K.R.I.T., Tyler, the Creator, Nipsey Hussle, and Eminem. The magazine also focuses on photographers with a special interest in hip hop, such as Jonathan Mannion, Albert Watson, and Mike Miller.

In 2010, Rap Radar founder Elliott Wilson became RESPECT.'s editor-in-chief. He previously worked with Rheingold at XXL when the magazine rose to hip-hop dominance.Datwon Thomas, current Editor-in-Chief of VIBE Magazine, was also a past EIC of RESPECT.


SVT2 (usually referred to as Tvåan), is one of the two main television channels broadcast by Sveriges Television in Sweden.

Launched in 1969 by Sveriges Radio, the channel was the most watched in Sweden for many years, but now serves as SVT's specialist television network, carrying more highbrow and minority programming compared to the more mainstream SVT1.

Weirdo (comics)

Weirdo is a magazine-sized comics anthology created by Robert Crumb and published by Last Gasp from 1981 to 1993.

Weirdo served as a "low art" counterpoint to its contemporary highbrow Raw. Early issues of Weirdo reflect Crumb's interests at the time – outsider art, fumetti, Church of the SubGenius-type anti-propaganda and assorted "weirdness." It also introduced artists such as Peter Bagge, Dori Seda and Dennis (Stickboy) Worden.

With issue #10, Crumb later handed over the editing reins to Bagge; with issue #18, the reins went to Crumb's wife, cartoonist Aline Kominsky-Crumb (except for issue #25, which was again edited by Bagge). The three editorial tenures were known respectively as "Personal Confessions", the "Coming of the Bad Boys", and the "Twisted Sisters".Weirdo's final issue, #28, an internationally themed 68-page giant titled Verre D'eau (in French, "glass of water"), was published in 1993.

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