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Thursday, August 16, 2012

The Biography of the Bigwig

Johann Christoph Wagenseil
and his big wig
Yesterday morning a patron used our new chat service, Digsby, to ask us about the etymology of the term bigwig. (Want to use Digsby to ask us a question, too? Scroll up, choose a screen name, and type it into the message box.) According to my favorite dictionary, the Oxford English Dictionary (impossible to resist so many volumes of words!), a bigwig is

a person of high official standing; a noteworthy or important person.

The OED 's first recorded mention occurred in 1703 in English Spy. Notice how bigwig is hyphenated:

Be unto him ever ready to promote his wishes..against dun or don-nob or big-wig-so you may never want a bumper of bishop.

By the way, the OED says that in this case, a bumper is a glass of wine filled to the brim; a bishop is wine mixed with sugar and oranges or lemons. I needed to clarify that because I had a completely different image developing in my head. Fascinating, but not the origin of bigwig.

I hit pay dirt in Brewer's Dictionary of Phrase and Fable. They say:
The term alludes to the large wigs that in the 17th and 18th centuries encumbered the head and shoulders of the aristocracy of England and France. They are still worn by the lord chancellor, judges and (until 2000) the speaker of the house of commons. Bishops continued to wear them in the house of lords until 1880.

So, if you've ever watched an British crime procedural or A Fish Called Wanda, you've got a pretty idea of the wigs being described. Large. Ludicrous. Ugly. Big. We here in the Reference Department do not recommend wearing these types of wigs. (Unless, of course, you have a part in an British crime procedural...)

Fast fact: Richard Adams named one of the rabbits in Watership Down Bigwig. He (naturally) had a fluffy mop of rabbit hair atop his head.

Big. (2009). In Brewer's Dictionary of Phrase and Fable. Retrieved from
Bigwig. (2004). In Chambers Dictionary of Literary Characters. Retrieved from

Bigwig, n.Third edition, September 2008; online version June 2012. accessed 13 August 2012. An entry for this word was first included in New English Dictionary, 1887.

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