The Grammarphobia Blog

Wigs, bigwigs, and big Whigs

Q: A recent headline in the Salt Lake Tribune: “GOP big-whigs suggest Romney quietly go away.” I initially assumed that “big-whigs” was an error (albeit an amusing one), but a quick look on the Internet suggests that there might be a historical basis for this mistake. Can you enlighten me?

A: The headline writer for that post-election article no doubt meant “bigwigs,” not “big-whigs.” The chances are pretty slim that the writer intended a pun on the Whig political parties in Britain or the United States.

Even if a pun was intended, it wouldn’t have been appropriate, since the Whigs—at least in Britain—were known for being liberal.

But a few years ago another headline writer did manage such a pun. In 2007, the Telegraph of London used this headline on a review of a book about the 18th-century British prime minister Robert Walpole: “First of the big Whigs.”

There were Whigs in Britain in the 17th, 18th, and 19th centuries, and in the United States in the 19th century. The last Whig president was Millard Fillmore, who left office in 1853.

Certainly many big Whigs in 17th-century England wore big wigs (probably curled and powdered), but etymologically “Whig” and “wig” are not related.

The origin of “Whig” has never been pinned down. It might possibly be from “whiggamer” or “whiggamore,” one of a group of Scottish rebels who marched on Edinburgh in 1648, according to the Oxford English Dictionary.

The word “wig,” for the hairpiece, was first recorded in the 1600s as a short form of “periwig,” according to the Oxford English Dictionary.

Two words for a hairpiece, “periwig” and “peruke,” came into English in the 1500s, and both were derived from a Middle French word spelled perrucque or perruque, the OED says.

The French terms originally referred to a natural head of long hair, but “periwig” and for most of its history “peruke” have meant artificial hairpieces.

They’re not heard much these days, but here’s a 19th-century example of “peruke.” It comes from a primer on Shakespeare written in 1875 by Edward Dowden:

“That a most Christian king should each morning receive his peruke inserted upon a cane through an aperture of his bed-curtains is entirely correct; for the valet cannot retain faith in a perukeless grand monarch.”

And “bigwig”? We call important people “bigwigs,” according to the OED, because “of the large wigs formerly worn by men of distinction or importance.”

The term “bigwig” was first recorded in 1703 in a weekly journal called English Spy: “Be unto him ever ready to promote his wishes … against dun or don—nob or big-wig—so may you never want a bumper of bishop.”

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