Big wig


What's the meaning of the phrase 'Big wig'?

An important person. Now usually spelled as single word, ‘bigwig’.

What's the origin of the phrase 'Big wig'?

The fashion for wigs began with the Bourbon kings of France. Louis XIII (1601 – 1643) went prematurely bald and took to wearing a wig. By the middle of the century, and especially during the reign of Louis XIV, The Sun King, wigs were virtually obligatory for all European nobility and ‘persons of quality’.

At that time they were known in England as periwigs, which was shortened to wig by 1675.

Wigs were expensive to purchase and to keep in condition and were the preserve of the powerful and wealthy. Ostentation was the order of the day in Bourbon France and over time the wigs became bigger, often to the point of absurdity and requiring of scaffolding.

It isn’t difficult to imagine how the term ‘big-wig’ emerged to refer to the rich and powerful.

The first record of this in print that I’ve found is G. Selwyn’s 1781 Letters in 15th Rep. Hist. MSS. Commission:

“A new point of discussion for the lawyers, for our big wigs, for their Lordships.”

This makes explicit the use of the term in relation to the British judiciary, who wore wigs in court – then and now.

Trend of big wig in printed material over time

Gary Martin is a writer and researcher on the origins of phrases and the creator of the Phrase Finder website. Over the past 26 years more than 700 million of his pages have been downloaded by readers. He is one of the most popular and trusted sources of information on phrases and idioms.

Gary Martin

Writer and researcher on the origins of phrases and the creator of the Phrase Finder website. Over the past 26 years more than 700 million of his pages have been downloaded by readers. He is one of the most popular and trusted sources of information on phrases and idioms.