The Grammarphobia Blog

Highest minded

Q: I have a question about this statement: “He’s a bigot of the highest order.” The meaning here is that he’s the worst type of bigot. Shouldn’t the superlative be “lowest”?

A: The phrase “of the highest order” doesn’t always mean “the best of its kind.” It can also mean “the worst of its kind.” The expression can be used to characterize something that’s excessively or surpassingly bad.

For instance, the phrase is emphatically negative in these recent examples from news websites:

“political malpractice of the highest order” (Washington Post);

“a prickly misfit of the highest order” (New York Times Book Review);

“schemers of the highest order” (Huffington Post);

“a brain explosion of the highest order” (Sidney Morning Herald);

“stupidity of the highest order” (Britain’s Daily Mail);

“a mummy’s boy of the highest order” (the Guardian);

“hypocrisy of the highest order” (the Australian);

“stalemate of the highest order” (NBCSports.com).

Journalists aren’t alone in using the expression this way. Other writers on the Web have described instances of “treason,” “betrayal,” “disgrace,” “arrogance,” “self-abuse,” “tomfoolery,” “insecurity,” “problems,” and “deceit” as being “of the highest order.”

The word “highest” here is an adjective of degree rather than of quality, so it can apply to traits that are highly positive or negative. Think of the phrases “of the highest magnitude” and “to the nth degree,” which can be used with descriptions either good or bad. 

The Macmillan Dictionary defines “of a high/the highest order” as meaning “of the best or worst type,” and gives examples of both: “The job calls for problem-solving skills of a high order. … It was economic lunacy of the highest order.”

The Oxford English Dictionary doesn’t specifically discuss “of the highest order,” though a search of its files turns up several uses of the phrase.

Here’s a negative example, from Warren St. John’s book Rammer Jammer Yellow Hammer (2004): “Finebaum has been a relentless badgerer of Mike Dubose, a man he has adjudged an incompetent of the highest order.”

This expression resembles another that’s used for comparisons—“of the first water,” a phrase that originated in the jewelry trade.

In the early 17th century, when the phrase was first recorded, gems of the finest transparency and luster were described as being “of the first water,” the OED says.

“The three highest grades of quality in diamonds were formerly known as the first water, second water, and third water,” the OED explains. This use of “water” in the sense of luster or splendor may have come from Arabic, Oxford notes.

In the late 18th century, people began using “of the first (or finest, purest, rarest) water” in a figurative sense.

Originally, these figurative usages were positive, since the implied comparison was to a fine jewel, but by the early 19th century, negative uses also crept in.

Today, as Oxford says, the expression is used “following a personal designation (often of reproach) with the sense ‘out-and-out,’ ‘thorough-paced.’” 

The dictionary quotes this out-and-out condemnation from an 1826 entry in Sir Walter Scott’s journal: “He was a … swindler of the first water.”

It also cites this one from William B. Boulton’s Thomas Gainsborough (1905), a biography of the painter: “He … assumed the airs of a beau and lady-killer of the first water.”

No, the reference isn’t to Gainsborough, but to his landlord, John Astley, who by all accounts was a womanizer, a fortune-hunter, and a rogue of the highest order.

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