Brow inflation?

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Andrew Gelman has some interesting things to say about "Brow Inflation" on his blog Statistical Modeling, Causal Inference, and Social Science. He quotes Brooks Barnes ("Hollywood moves away from middlebrow", 12/26/2010),

"Inception," a complicated thriller about dream invaders, racked up more than $825 million in global ticket sales; "The Social Network" has so far delivered $192 million, a stellar result for a highbrow drama. . . . the message that the year sent about quality and originality is real enough that studios are tweaking their operating strategies.

and observes that

Standards have certainly changed when a Spiderman sequel, and a 21 Jump Street remake, and a ride at Disneyland are defined as "highbrow."

The cultural products described in the article–big-money popular entertainments that are well-reviewed and have some association with quality–are classic middlebrow. Back around 1950, Russell Lynes and Dwight Macdonald were all over this.

Andrew is referring to Russell Lynes 1947 article "The tastemakers", his 1949  "Highbrow, Lowbrow, Middlebrow", and Dwight Macdonald's 1960 Masscult and Midcult.  Since Macdonald (for example) gave Our Town and The Old Man and the Sea as examples of middlebrow literature, Andrew is surely correct to say that it would have curled Dwight's lip to hear "highbrow" used to describe hiring an edgy independent filmmaker as the director of a Spiderman sequel.

Andrew suggests that there's a process of "brow inflation", analogous to "grade inflation", whereby the "higher" values on the scale come to be applied to things that would in the past have been assigned to "lower" levels.

There's a lot to be said about this question — for example, Russell Lynes' 1947 article was mostly about the process by which older "high art" becomes assimilated into mass culture:

The [art] boom is the result of a conscientious, expensive, and on the whole well-organized campaign against philistinism which started some time ago. And the banner is being carried by a well-trained (if not well-disciplined) band of zealots who have constituted themselves a sort of Salvation army of our sensibilities.

This process obviously entails a sort of "brow inflation", at least in the sense that what was once the exclusive cultural property of an intellectual elite comes to be more widely know, and eventually to be the subject of Hollywood blockbusters. Of course, this sort of "brow inflation" isn't possible for those who see the brow-height dimension as measuring an essential property of a work, not a property of its societal uptake. But whether or not you accept that perspective, you'll have to agree with  Andrew's observation that it's at least etymologically weird to refer to the quintessentially middlebrow aspects of cultural marketing as "highbrow".

Since this is Language Log, not Culture Log,  I'm going to turn to a perhaps-related question, namely what we might call "formality inflation". At least for the past couple of thousand years, the arrow of linguistic change has generally pointed in the direction specified by "downward" shifts in categories of formality. What used to be formal language become archaic; what used to be informal become formal; what used to be stigmatized as vulgar or careless becomes merely informal. Sometimes these shifts are gradual, as we can see in looking at State of the Union messages over the past couple of hundred years; and sometimes there are discontinuous changes, as in the elevation by Dante or Lu Xun of vernacular language to formal status.

A relevant earlier discussion of one of Andrew Gelman's linguistically-oriented posts ("Complexity", 9/7/2005) brought in trends in television plot-lines, the Flynn effect, the historical trends in Inaugural Address sentence lengths, and Seth Robert's ideas about the greater complexity of spoken as opposed to written styles, in reference to John McWhorter's book "Doing Our Own Thing: The Degradation of Language and Music and Why We Should, Like, Care".

This morning I'll confuse the picture further by asking for examples of change in the opposite direction. I don't mean individual writers, or even groups of writers, who choose an archaizing style, but rather cases where (say) the written language as a whole seems to be moving towards increased formality.  One possible case is Bridget Jankowski's work on the recent history of the English genitive, described in my post "The genitive of lifeless things", 10/11/2009.

Jankowski looks at the influence of many factors on the relative frequency of s-genitive and of-genitive forms. Overall, spoken English uses s-genitives more often than written English does; and in written English, more informal genres (like magazine articles) use s-genitives more often than formal genres (like parliamentary speeches) do. As we'd expect, therefore, the written language has changed, over the past 50 years or so, in the general direction of higher proportions of s-genitives.

But the details are more complicated. In the spoken language, s-genitives are strongly preferred for human possessors, but are hardly ever used for inanimate possessors. In the written language, however, the tide of change seems to be carrying all possessors along in the s-genitive direction, regardless of degree of animacy (though of course proportions still vary along the animacy dimension). (At least, this is true for the genre of magazine articles.) Thus for human possessors, the written language is becoming more informal (or at least more speech-like), but for inanimate possessors, the written language is becoming more formal (or at least less speech-like).

This certainly seems to have something to do with with "statistical modeling, causal inference, and social science" (the field as well as the blog). For some further details, see the cited post; and note that errors or overinterpretations, which are likely, are my fault rather than Bridget Jankowski's.

In any case, it's not clear that "formality inflation", whether universal or not, is genuinely analogous to the concept of "brow inflation": brow-height has always been treated as an essential property of people and their works, whereas formality is generally seen as a matter of social convention.

The OED glosses the modifier role of middlebrow as "Of a person: only moderately intellectual; of average or limited cultural interests (sometimes with the implication of pretensions to more than this). Of an artistic work, etc.: of limited intellectual or cultural value; demanding or involving only a moderate degree of intellectual application, typically as a result of not deviating from convention". The OED's citations start in  1924:

1924 Freeman's Jrnl. 3 May 6 Ireland's musical destiny, in spite of what the highbrows or middlebrows may say, is intimately bound up with the festivals.
1925 Punch 23 Dec. 673/3 The B.B.C. claim 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 they ought to like.
1928 Observer 17 June 26 The standard of ‘middle-brow’ music and plays is always rather low.
1934 D. Thomas Let. 9 May (1987) 132 You've struck such a curious medium in your poetry lately that publication becomes very difficult; there are so few medium papers left. By that I don't mean ‘middlebrow’ or anything like that.

The gloss and citations assume an intrinsic evaluation of quality, rather like old-fashioned views of social class as something essential and inborn. As a result, it's not  possible for a work that used to be middlebrow to become highbrow. In contrast, for example, a mode of dress that used to be informal can become formal, as has happened several times in the recent history of men's clothing styles. In that sense, formality is more like the modern conception of "socio-economic status", which cares about your income rather than your ancestral essence.

Macdonald and Lyne put more emphasis on middlebrow as a symptom of the marketing of High Culture to the aspiring masses, but they shared the assumption that brow height is an essential characteristic of a work, and not simply a matter of who thinks what about it.

In any case, from the beginning "middlebrow" has clearly been a Bad Thing to be. The strength of this prejudice is evident in one of the most famous un-sent letters of all time, which Virginia Woolf (allegedly) wrote to the editor of the New Statesman complaining about a review of one of her books, and published under the title "Middlebrow" as Chapter 22 in her 1942 collection of essays The Death of the Moth. Its first and last sentences:

"Will you allow me to draw your attention to the fact that in a review of a book by me (October ) your reviewer omitted to use the word Highbrow? […] If any human being, man, woman, dog, cat or half-crushed worm dares call me “middlebrow” I will take my pen and stab him, dead."

Woolf suggests, jocularly but explicitly, the alliance between High and Low that European intellectuals have long aspired to:

Have I then made my point clear, sir, that the true battle in my opinion lies not between highbrow and lowbrow, but between highbrows and lowbrows joined together in blood brotherhood against the bloodless and pernicious pest who comes between? If the B.B.C. stood for anything but the Betwixt and Between Company they would use their control of the air not to stir strife between brothers, but to broadcast the fact that highbrows and lowbrows must band together to exterminate a pest which is the bane of all thinking and living.

And she means the "pest" business pretty literally:

It may be, to quote from your advertisement columns, that “terrifically sensitive” lady novelists overestimate the dampness and dinginess of this fungoid growth. But all I can say is that when, lapsing into that stream which people call, so oddly, consciousness, and gathering wool from the sheep that have been mentioned above, I ramble round my garden in the suburbs, middlebrow seems to me to be everywhere. “What’s that?” I cry. “Middlebrow on the cabbages? Middlebrow infecting that poor old sheep?"

As Russell Lynes put it in his 1949 essay,

The middlebrows are influential today, but neither the highbrows nor the lowbrows like them; and if we ever have intellectual totalitarianism, it may well be the lowbrows and the highbrows who will run things, and the middlebrows who will be exiled in boxcars to a collecting point probably in the vicinity of Independence, Missouri.

This strikes me as a very 1950-ish perspective: "middle-class" is not nearly as negative a modifier now as it was then, and I'd be surprised to find a famous author self-identifying as highbrow, even in jest.

[By the way,  "Statistical Modeling, Causal Inference, and Social Science" has the longest name of any blog that I read regularly.  I say that admiringly, as one who sometimes teaches a course with the longest title on campus, "Computational Analysis and Modeling of Biological Signals and Systems".  My excuse is that Eero Simoncelli and I had to withdraw our first title, "DSP for non-EEs", after objections from the Electrical Engineering department. In Andrew's case, perhaps he was looking over his shoulder at the philosophers and sociologists?  Or more likely, his research interests are coherent but situated at the intersection of several disciplines, so that our culture lacks any simpler phrase of describing what he does. Future historians of science may marvel at the fact that in the early 21st century, English had "no word for Statistical Modeling, Causal Inference, and Social Science".]


  1. John Kingston said,

    December 29, 2010 @ 12:53 pm

    The 's genitive has two related advantages in writing, namely, it makes the text shorter and reduces what can be a prolonged string of prepositional phrases. Given how much use English puts prepositions to this can be a blessing. Compare (from a fragment of my own prose):

    "the information content of the message at the point in the utterances where …"


    "the message's information content at the point in the utterance where …"

    Isn't the second obviously better than the first?

  2. swami said,

    December 29, 2010 @ 1:22 pm

    You argue that something "middle-brow" cannot by its OED definition become "high-brow." I disagree. The overall intellectual value a culture can change (and have!) which then shifts the brow-level of specific things. It used to be high-brow to comprehend and appreciate Homer. Now to achieve that same intellectual status, you merely have to comprehend and appreciate Inception. Homer, formerly high-brow, is shunted to the side and forgotten – no longer in the realm of cultural appreciation.

  3. Chris said,

    December 29, 2010 @ 1:37 pm

    Hmmmm, what do you make of temporary shifts like season's greetings. All of a sudden, after Thanksgiving, everyone in the USA and elsewhere starts saying "merry christmas" and "happy holidays" to each other as greetings and salutations. I find it a formality.

  4. Jean-Sébastien Girard said,

    December 29, 2010 @ 1:44 pm

    "Homer, formerly high-brow, is shunted to the side and forgotten – no longer in the realm of cultural appreciation."

    Not quite, just not in the realm of "general culture" appreciation. They have moved to a status not unlike that of underground culture icons: only a fairly limited set of people actually appreciate them, to the point where it becomes a very ingroup/outgroup thing to be able to tal about them. By contrast, the high/middle/lowbrow stuff is at least KNOWN to a degree because it is part of the ambient general or pop culture, even if you are not thoroughly familiar with it.

  5. Jean-Sébastien Girard said,

    December 29, 2010 @ 1:50 pm

    Regarding the post itself, the phenomenon reminds me more of the very sociolinguistic phenomenon called the Euphemism treadmill.

  6. Clayton Burns said,

    December 29, 2010 @ 2:00 pm

    Mark might consider something unusual that has happened, a useful column by the Fishmonger in The NYT:

    Narrative and the Grace of God: The New ‘True Grit,’ By STANLEY FISH:

    "The springs of that universe are revealed to us by the narrator-heroine Mattie in words that appear both in Charles Portis’s novel and the two films, but with a difference. The words the book and films share are these:

    'You must pay for everything in this world one way and another. There is nothing free with the exception of God’s grace.' These two sentences suggest a world in which everything comes around, if not sooner then later." I would be very interested in Mark's analysis of the film's language.

    Robert Alter's "Pen of Iron" would be a good source on style.

    I found Alter's comment here compelling: "One unsettling symptom of the general problem [of the 'disappearance of a sense of style'] is that in the country's most influential reviewing platform, the 'New York Times Book Review,' when a critic singles out a writer for stylistic brilliance, it is far more often than not the case that the proffered illustrative quotation turns out to be either flat and banal writing or prose of the most purple hue" (10).

    It is true that the NYT Book Review is an embarrassing and minor commercial supplement. However, I am not convinced that that makes America lowbrow. On January first, the NYT could fire the BR editors and hire Alter as the editor-in-chief. The book review could build on Fish's comments and start taking language seriously.

    Everything has a context. For me, the 'Inception' context is that I now have an ASUS 1015PN with HD movie capacity, and I have been allowed to tinker with my student's Studio Beats Dr. Dre headphones. The precision is so remarkable that I would say that the experience is beyond middlebrow. It is all in the way you think about it. That is what Hamlet said.

  7. mgh said,

    December 29, 2010 @ 2:06 pm

    It's not a natural language, of course, but I think HTML has become more formal since 1995. Elements like a closed paragraph and body and head tags were (I think?) in the early specification but were optional and rarely used.

  8. Keith M Ellis said,

    December 29, 2010 @ 10:37 pm

    Last year I read 33 1/3's Celine Dion's Let's Talk About Love: A Journey to the End of Taste by Carl Wilson. It is a very good little book—an informed meditation on taste and some of the issues mentioned or implied in this post and comments.

    Much discussed, and relevant here, was a discussion of Bourdieu's La Distinction, with his elaboration on the concept of social capital and based upon his extensive research. It caused me to think much more carefully about the sneering that I and so many others do about artifacts of culture thought to be crude and in poor taste. I almost immediately loaned the book to someone else and now regret not having it at hand. Or, really, just to re-read again soon.

  9. Janne said,

    December 30, 2010 @ 1:26 am

    In the field of formality, Swedish language largely dispensed with what had become an impenetrable tangle of titular forms and rules of address in the mid-twentieth century. Instead people switched to, among other things, the general use of "du" (you) to address other people no matter what the circumstances.

    But lately one form of address "Ni" (you, plural) has made a return among younger people especially, to address strangers of unknown but higher rank – such as clerks addressing customers, or young people addressing old ones. There was clearly a need to somehow be able to show respect in such circumstances so Ni made a comeback.

    Interestingly, Ni was originally used only towards strangers of unknown or lower status; anybody higher status was addressed in other ways. So we have the occasional situation where a young person tries to be very polite and uses Ni towards an elderly pensioner, while the recipient was around when the word was used in its original meaning and gets offended.

  10. Jerry Friedman said,

    December 30, 2010 @ 8:36 am

    I don't have any evidence, but I have the feeling albeit has made something of a comeback in less formal levels in the past few decades. And it would be interesting to see the history of whom and whomever.

    Speaking of which, does increased nonstandard use of formal expressions, such as for you and I, count as increased formality?

  11. Jerry Friedman said,

    December 30, 2010 @ 8:37 am

    To clarify, I meant you and I as the formal expression and for you and I as the nonstandard use.

  12. Mr Punch said,

    December 30, 2010 @ 8:44 am

    "Middlebrow" was in fact a concept of real importance in the 1940s-60s, which saw a rapid increase in the number of college-educated people – most of whom were in no sense intellectuals. (It's not unrelated to Djilas's "New Class.")

  13. 4ndyman said,

    December 30, 2010 @ 9:55 am

    I'm not entirely clear on whether or how the ideas of being formal and being clinical are linked, but it has become increasingly annoying to me to hear police representatives speaking to the press in what seems like the most unnecessarily clinical (perhaps formal) language, so that the police will report about "a thirty-year-old female" instead of "a thirty-year-old woman," or "three male youths between the ages of 14 and 17" instead of "three teenage boys."

    This may be a case of the recency illusion — I have no proof that this extreme formality/clinicality hasn't been the norm for decades — but only in the last years has it entered my conscious thoughts and begun to grate on my nerves.

    Another consideration is that this type of hyper-clinical speech might be imposed by higher powers, not a result of natural language change.

  14. Twitter Trackbacks for Language Log » Brow inflation? [] on said,

    December 30, 2010 @ 8:26 pm

    […] Language Log » Brow inflation? – view page – cached December 29, 2010 @ 11:30 am · Filed by Mark Liberman under Language and […]

  15. Mark Liberman said,

    December 30, 2010 @ 9:01 pm

    I'm posting this on behalf of Rod Johnson, whose link to HiLobrow ("which seriously/playfully explores a fairly bewildering variety of "browisms"–highbrow, hibrow, antihighbrow, lowbrow, antimiddlebrow, hilobrow, nobrow and a dozen others") apparently got trapped in the spam filter.

  16. Chris Waters said,

    December 31, 2010 @ 10:29 pm

    If brow-height is invariant, then how would one explain Shakespeare? For that matter, would Homer's epic tales of thud and blunder really have required more than "average or limited cultural interests" to be understood and appreciated by an 8th c. BCE Greek? If one accepts the OED's definition, then it seems to me that a certain amount of "brow inflation" is inherent in the linguistic and cultural changes that come with time. No falling standards are required to explain why an Elizabethan might have a greater interest in Elizabethan culture than a man born in the late 20th c.

  17. Stuff I learned this week (and last) – #1/11 « Real Virtuality said,

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    […] The notion that mainstream movies might become more intelligent (or that the definition of "intelligent" is going downhill) sparks linguistic debate. […]

  18. Keith said,

    January 11, 2011 @ 4:01 pm

    Constructions like "for you and I" are hypercorrections.

    Children are taught to prefer "you and I" over "you and me" when they are criticized for saying "can you and me play a game together". They then carry that construction over into phrases where the pronouns are not the subject, but the object.


  19. “Middlebrow” « wild sleep said,

    January 22, 2011 @ 8:46 am

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