High, wide and handsome


What's the meaning of the phrase 'High, wide and handsome'?

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In a carefree, stylish manner.

What's the origin of the phrase 'High, wide and handsome'?

This is about as bona fide American as a phrase can get.

It is often used to conjure up images of the openness and freedom of the plains and mountains of rural USA, or of the horses and cowboys that roamed them. Montana in particular has laid claim to the description, and there are several guide books to the state with that title.

The first reference in print is from The Bucks County Gazette, Bristol, Pennsylvania, November 1881:

“Among the many improvements on Market Street, few are so conspicuous as the high, wide and handsome building on the north-west corner of Eighth.”

It could be argued that this reference doesn’t unambiguously cite the use of the phrase with the known meaning. It could just be describing a handsome building that happens to be wide and high. Possibly, but not so this citation from a few years later, in the Fort Wayne Journal-Gazette, Indiana, May 1905:

“Up in western New York, when they take out a lively colt, the farmers say, ‘he feels his oats,’ and he comes down the road, ‘high, wide and handsome.’ “

One of the better known early uses of the expression, and the one that probably brought it to wider attention, was in a 1923 advert for the Jordan Playboy motor car. The rather purple prose of the adver’s copy included this:

Somewhere west of Laramie there’s a bronco-busting, steer roping girl who knows what I’m talking about. She can tell what a sassy pony, that’s a cross between greased lighting and the place where it hits, can do with eleven hundred pounds of steel and action when he’s going high, wide and handsome.

Not surprisingly, for a phrase so associated with the US, it didn’t travel elsewhere for many years. It isn’t seen in print in the UK until the 1930s, as here in this 1934 newspaper advert for a cruise ship, described as:

“A trim ship built high, wide and handsome, a ship with ‘decks appeal’.”

Since then there have been several ‘high, wide and …’ variations, although the original phrase remains the most used, albeit still mostly in the USA:

– P. G. Wodehouse, Uncle Fred in Springtime, 1939: “He has a nasty way of lugging Pongo out into the open and proceeding to step high, wide and plentiful”

– J. Wainwright, Last Buccaneer, 1971: “The cops’ll be high, wide and helpless.”

– G. M Atwater, Backtracks Through the High, Wide and Lonesome (anthology of cowboy poetry), 1996.

See other phrases that were coined in the USA.

Trend of high 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.