Historically Speaking

Making sense of it all!

Egghead

Posted by Elyse Bruce on December 8, 2010

An airhead is someone who hasn’t got any sensible or realistic ideas and appears to be lacking in intelligence.  The opposite of an airhead is an egghead, who is very studious and is, quite naturally, an intellectual.

Far from being a compliment in the United States over the past 75 years or so, egghead has been used as an anti-intellectual epithet, directed at people who are described as being out-of-touch with ordinary people and hyperfocused on intellectual interests and pursuits only.

The term egghead was used during the 1952 Presidential campaign, when Stewart Alsop — a powerful Connecticut Republican and the brother of newspaper columnist Joseph Alsop — labeled Adlai Stevenson an egghead because of Stevenson’s perceived intellectual air.  In Alsop‘s syndicated column of September 1952, Alsop wrote:

After Stevenson’s serious and rather difficult atomic energy speech in Hartford, Conn., this reporter remarked to a rising young Connecticut Republican that a good many intelligent people, who would be considered normally Republican, obviously admired Stevenson.  “Sure,” was the reply, “all the eggheads love Stevenson.  But how many eggheads do you think there are?”

Alsop defined the word egghead as “what the Europeans would call ‘intellectuals’ … interested in ideas and in the words used to express those ideas.”

A 1918 letter written by Carl Sandburg to his former newspaper boss, Negley Dakin Cochran indicates that Chicago newspapermen used the term egghead to refer to highbrow editorial writers out of touch with the common man.  In his letter, Carl Sandburg wrote:

Egg heads is the slang here for editorial writers here.  I have handed in five editorials on Russia and two on the packers, voicing what 95 percent of the readers of The News are saying on the [trolley] cars and in the groceries and saloons but they have been ditched for hot anti-bolshevik stuff … At that it isn’t so much the policies of the papers as the bigotry and superstition and flunkeyism of the Egg Heads.

Before Sandburg’s use of the term, however, author Owen Johnson published a story in 1909 entitled “The Triumphant Egghead” in the book “The Eternal Boy: Being The Story of the Prodigious Hickey.”  Hickey is the main character in the book and he gave nicknames to his friends. 

In the Masillon (OH) Evening Independent newspaper, an article published on December 5, 1910 quoted Mr. Johnson as stating that the nicknames came from friends with whom he attended school.

In the Varmin” he said, “I was writing of a period from 1893 to 1897, when there was a particularly bright lot of youngsters in Lawrenceville: pioneers of a peculiar sort of English literature I called them … [snip] … all of them appear off and on in the book.”

I was unable to find a published reference that pre-dates 1893, however, for the term to be so easily used in stories in 1893, it’s not unreasonable to believe that the term was already established as a word referring to an individual of certain developed intellectual abilities.

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