This week I stumbled upon the sort of quote that tickles the fancy of a word nerd. It comes from a 1912 article in The Nation.
“[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.”
The quote sparked not only a good laugh, but an interest in the origins of the word brow. It seems the Old English braew initially meant blinker or twinkle, and was used to refer to the eyelid or eyelashes. Its early relatives can be found in brus (proto-Germanic), bhrus (Sanskrit), ophris (Greek), bruvis (Lithuanian), & the Old Irish word bru.
To refer to what today is called the eyebrow, the Anglo-Saxons combined bru with a prefix meaning over, to create the term ofer-bru, but somewhere in the 1200s the prefix evaporated and the prefixless bru or brouw came to mean eyebrow. It wasn’t until the 1500s that the word brow came to be used to refer to the forehead.
The term browbeat showed up in the late 1500s, though it appears that 16th century browbeating had more to do with frowning, or lowering one’s brows than with any sort of attack.
The terms low-brow & high-brow didn’t come about until 1902, a mere decade before the coinage of that beautiful term labeling those of us who consider books “a source of intellectual enjoyment,” middle-brow.
So, fellow book-lovers, will any of you join me in proudly wearing the label, middle-brow? Please let me know. We‘ll start a movement!