What Does "Egghead" Mean?

Ransom Riggs

"Egghead" is one of those words that seems to have fallen out of wide use, not unlike the fifties-ish epithet "pieface" (a favorite insult of Ramona Quimby, among others). These days I think most of us take it to mean "nerd" or "geek." While its true origins are a bit murky, it's widely agreed that "egghead" reached the height of its usage in 1952, when then-vice-presidential candidate Richard Nixon used it to describe the Democratic candidate for president, Adlai Stevenson -- whose balding head certainly conjured images of an egg. But his supporters were quickly labeled eggheads as well, and thus the term took on a political meaning. It came, eventually, to mean approximately what the word "elitist" means today.

In a Pulitzer-winning essay on the history of American anti-intellectualism, Richard Hofstadter wrote that "During the campaign of 1952, the country seemed to be in need of some term to express that disdain for intellectuals which had by then become a self-conscious motif in American politics. The word egghead was originally used without invidious associations, but quickly assumed them, and acquired a much sharper tone than the traditional highbrow." Later, a popular conservative novelist named Louis Bromfield remarked that "the recent election demonstrated a number of things, not the least of them being the extreme remoteness of the 'egghead' from the thought and feeling of the whole of the people."

Sound familiar? It should, though these days the word "egghead" has ceded ground to words like "elitist." I don't know about you, but I was surprised to learn that "egghead" had such a strong political connotation; that it meant, in its heyday at least, "out-of-touch liberal" as much as "geek" or "nerd." Which explains how Richard Nixon could play a piano concerto on television in 1961 and somehow avoid being labeled an egghead himself: