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 and 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 (Lawrence W. Levine, "Prologue", Highbrow/Lowbrow: The Emergence of Cultural Hierarchy in America, 1990: 3; 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" (Tak Wing Chan, Social Status and Cultural Consumption 2010: 60). 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". 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.
- 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."
- "Highbrow". Oxford English Dictionary (3rd ed.). Oxford University Press. September 2005.
- 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.)"
- Quoted in Micki McGee, Yaddo: Making American Culture, 106: McGee outlines the history of the highbrow/lowbrow debate.
- 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.