High, wide and handsome

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High, wide and handsome : Phrases


In a carefree, stylish manner.



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.' If a western New York farmer were to describe the president he would use just those terms. He is the boss. He knows he is the boss and he knows the leaders know he is the boss."

The allusion there is to high-stepping horses, which is in keeping with the 'life on the open range' imagery associated with the phrase. The use of the word handsome in this phrase may be an allusion to a US slang meaning of the word - 'to act generously or graciously'. This was known by 1890, and is recorded in Farmer and Henley's Slang and its Analogues.

When wanting to convey a feeling of country style and joy of life US writers have often turned to 'high, wide and handsome'. It almost goes without saying that several bluegrass country music trios have seized on the name. In 1937, Rouben Mamoulian directed a musical drama movie set in the great outdoors of 1850s Pennsylvania. Music and lyrics were by Jerome Kern and Oscar Hammerstein II. It starred the handsome, 6' 4" actor Randolph Scott. What better title than 'High, Wide and Handsome'?

Having tried it out, Hammerstein developed the 'wide-open, beautiful, US outdoors' theme further in the hit musical Oklahoma, in 1943.

There's a bright, golden haze on the meadow
There's a bright, golden haze on the meadow.
The corn is as high as an elephant's eye
And it looks like it's climbing clear up to the sky.

Oh, what a beautiful Mornin'
Oh, what a beautiful day.
I've got a beautiful feelin'
Everything's goin' my way.

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.

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