‘The word highbrow is not libellous!’ – Trott. v Tulip.

Hey all, before you continue reading, there are a few things that you should be made aware of! Firstly, the inspiration behind this piece comes from a book called Uncommon Law by A.P. Herbert, this is case 8/60. The book uses silly and wild scenarios to play with legal reasoning, and the wittiness of the book has inspired me to write a blog post in a similar style. This post will argue in an opposite manner to the book (in the book the case is told, argued and ruled in favour of the plaintiff, this is Mrs Trott, who is the person suing for deformation). The book was written in 1935, and I’ve attempted to write in a similar style, please don’t get the impression that I use words such as "Milord" for fun!
Finally, I’d like to mention and deeply thank Mr McCall, a very interesting speaker who mentioned the book in a lecture he gave, and Mr Stallard, for lending me a copy of this quite difficult to come across book!
I’ll stop now. I hope you enjoy the post!


‘Is Highbrow Libellous?’

(Before Mr Justice Wool)

Me: Milord, I put my case forward once again, following the adjournment of our last hearing.

Justice Wool: Please.

Me: Thank you, Milord. As previously stated by his lordship, throughout the entirety of my professional career, never has a case held such simple facts, yet sharp, polarising and complicated differences.

The facts of the case are simple enough, and must be reiterated in the interests of continuity --

Justice Wool: As they should be, I don’t seem to remember much.

Me: Of course, Milord. The parties both belong to the literary world, and are both sufficiently well known. Miss Clelia Trott, as a writer, and Mrs. Tulip, as a critic of original works of fictions. The defendant, Mrs Tulip, in reviewing a recent work of Miss Clelia Trott’s, a book called Midnight, employed the following words: ‘It is no good Miss Trott. All your murderer’s and detectives, your vamps and mysteries, do not deceive us, charming though they are. The truth is, Miss Trott, you are a bit of a highbrow’.

The question as such boils down to, ‘Is the word “highbrow” defamatory or not?’ and it is my dear pleasure to inform the jury this is the big question, the crux of the case, to put it in lay terms.

Justice Wool: Yes, yes, I remember this case. Dear Lord, I pray that this day, the twenty-eighth day of the hearing, is the final (laughter). Please continue.

Me: Your lordship speaks all our minds. We have had, in the previous hearing, the advantage of the expert testimony of nineteen well-known writers and authors, fourteen literary critics, seven editors and two philologists. The one thing that emerges from this mass of informed opinion is that the expression complained of must be the most remarkable word in common use today, for though each of these authorities came prepared with a full and impressive theory of the origin and significance of the word, no two of these explanations were in any respect the same. If therefore, we place any reliance upon the expert advice, we draw to the conclusion that the word ‘highbrow’ has a different meaning in the mouth of every authority, and thus, its subjectivity means that to deploy it cannot be defamatory.

This confusion can be cleared by looking at the original meaning of the word, thought up by an American Journalist, who has not been called to give a testimony. The word was invented to express his natural surprise on his observing that there were persons more superior in intelligence them himself. With this meaning, the word ‘highbrow’ is thus so far from being libellous it can constitute a complementary expression. What bolsters this argument further is the frequent juxtaposition to the word lowbrow, signifying a person of a low or shallow forehead, and so, limited brain development.

Justice Wool: (to the jury) it seems as if your job may finally come to a close. My dear! Could this not have been said on day 2? (laughter)

Me: I am very grateful for your lordships interruption. Milord, in actuality it has been, yet the plaintiff attempt to undermine this point, and so make the jury question themselves, by urging that whilst the origin of the term may have been positive, it has acquired by popular usage a definitely offensive, significance. Milord, in short, the plaintiff seems to suggest that highbrow means not merely a person of superior intelligence, but one who is offensively boastful.

What is used to support this claim, is that assuming that the former definition is true, there would be an eagerness, or at least a readiness, amongst the literary craft to be named by this name, yet few lay claim to this name. Citing that even those who cater for the educated orders of society have a reluctance to be considered a highbrow. The plaintiff here attempts to detect a parallel in the field of morals, implying that whilst all these men are proud of their purity, few will accept the title of a puritan.

Justice Wool: Ah yes! No wonder you and Sir Ethelred are paid five thousand pounds a year –

Me: Yes Milord, but with the utmost respect I find that this argument is unfounded. You see Sir Ethelred makes two very broad assumptions, that are easily countered.

Milord, the first of which is that a lack of use implies offensiveness. Well, this is untrue, for a lack of use can be far more closely attributed to a lack of a concise definition, rather than the connotations some circles have of insult. Milord, allow me to ask you a question…

Justice wool: Please.

Me: مولاي هل تفهمي ؟

Justice wool: May I remind you that under the Proceedings in Court of Justice Act of 1730, the only permitted languages in the court are English or Latin.

Me: Milord, may I ask why?

Justice wool: Well firstly, English is the common language of all people in the court, the court clerk on has the Latin alphabet on their keys -----

Me: Milord I thank you for your erudite answer. We speak in English as it is understood by everyone here, this being the primary reason I do not show off my bilingual capabilities. This thus links to my point, for me not speaking Arabic to Sir Ethelred does not imply that the language is offensive or defamatory, instead I chose not to use it since there is not a mutual understanding.

Hence, the lack of use of the word highbrow as a label can relate to this. People may avoid it between circles as even leading philologists cannot create concise definition, and want to avoid awkwardness. From this, it can clearly be inferred that Sir Ethelred’s argument that a lack of use means that it is popularly held as an insulting term is wrong, instead, its lack of use shows that people are afraid to use it given the multiplicity of different interpretations that run the risk of accidental insult or on the other side, overly friendly compliments.

Justice Wool: Bravo! (Laughter as Justice wool seems to have just awoken from daydreaming)

Me: Thank you milord. Now my second point. In a similar vein, Sir Ethelred attempts to state that there is a lack of willingness to be labelled as a highbrow. Pointing to few that want to take the title. Rest assured milord, as with a mathematical proof, only one fault must be shown in the chain of reasoning, do entirely disprove the point, and so my point is brief, now ---

Justice Wool: Thank heavens, lest we overrun into lunch.

Me: No Milord, do not worry. Simply, there are people that are more than willing to accept the label of a highbrow. Most notably, Mr Aldous Huxley, who embraced and celebrated his title. The writer and philosopher whose group used the title as an honorary term and frequently used it in his works.

Justice Wool: Ah I see, but some may say Mr Huxley was an old fashioned and un-modern man.

Me: In his practice of life, perhaps, yet linguistically, as an expert in the field, it would be flawed to assume that he would not remain at the forefront of pushing for linguistic advancement.

Justice Wool: I see, thank you. The argument of the defence rests upon the ununified definition of the term, coupled with its original highly complementary meaning. The defence then chooses to counter the arguments of the plaintiff, by contending that the word is not used frequently to avoid awkwardness and inconvenient talks, rather than the term being derogatory, using the metaphor of an Arab man not speaking to an English man in their mother tongue to avoid having to educate the English man on every word and phrase used. Finally, the defence undermines the plaintiff’s claims that educated men do not use it, by providing a single example of an exception. I smell lunch.

The court adjourned.


  • The jury found for the plaintiff, but awarded damages of ¼ of a penny (a farthing). This case was heard in 1927, and would most likely hold a different verdict today.

Thank you for reading my post! Please do comment below, I am more than happy to be challenged.

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