Highbrow and lowbrow

Highbrow and lowbrow are compound words that are idioms. An idiom is a commonly used word, group of words, or phrase that has a figurative meaning that is not easily deduced from its literal definition. Often using descriptive imagery or metaphors, common idioms are words and phrases used in the English language in order to convey a concise idea, and are often spoken or are considered informal or conversational. English idioms can illustrate emotion more quickly than a phrase that has a literal meaning, even when the etymology or origin of the idiomatic expression is lost. An idiom is a metaphorical figure of speech, and it is understood that it is not a use of literal language. Figures of speech like an often-used metaphor have definitions and connotations that go beyond the literal meaning of the words. Mastery of the turn of phrase of an idiom, which may use slang words or other parts of speech common in American slang or British slang, is essential for the English learner. Many English as a Second Language students do not understand idiomatic expressions and idiomatic language such as hit the sack, spill the beans, let the cat out of the bag, silver lining, back to the drawing board, barking up the wrong tree, kick the bucket, hit the nail on the head, face the music, under the weather, piece of cake, when pigs fly, and raining cats and dogs, because they attempt to translate them word for word, which yields only the literal meaning. English phrases that are idioms should not be taken literally. In addition to learning vocabulary and grammar, one must understand the phrasing of the figurative language of idiomatic phrases in order to know English like a native speaker; it is helpful to maintain a list of phrases, common expressions, colloquial terms, and popular expressions to memorize that are used figuratively or idiomatically. We will examine the meaning of the common idioms highbrow and lowbrow, where they came from, and some examples of their idiomatic usage in sentences.

Highbrow means academic, scholarly, high class; for some it may mean pretentious. The word highbrow is a closed compound word, which is a word composed of two words joined together without a space that have a different meaning than the original words. The word highbrow was coined during the 1870s and is related to phrenology. Phrenology is the study of the shape of the head, which supposedly could measure a person’s intelligence. People with brows that were higher than average were thought to be highly intelligent. The study of phrenology has been thoroughly debunked.

Lowbrow means common, uneducated, for the masses, not requiring any intelligence or discrimination. The word lowbrow is also a closed compound word that was coined during the 1870s in reference to phrenology. People who had brows that were lower than average were thought to be stupid and inferior.


For something a little more highbrow, there’s the Browser, a smart British aggregator that draws on sources across the English-speaking world. (Los Angeles Times)

“If you want fine-dining options to wow your highbrow guests, you’ve picked up the wrong book,” she writes. (Guam Daily Post)

Her lover Aston (Trigorin), the cynically successful lowbrow writer, succumbing to the easy seduction of the innocent and dazzled Lily, is at least briefly brought to a realisation of love before (off-stage) finding its demands too taxing. (Independent)

Once a lowbrow quaff best known for the worm in its bottle, mezcal has become “this generation’s single-malt Scotch,” Robert Simonson writes in his compact and entertaining new volume, “Mezcal + Tequila Cocktails: Mixed Drinks for the Golden Age of Agave.” (Atlanta Journal Constitution)

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