High, Wide and Handsome

And the horse you rode in on.

Dear Word Detective: I have been intrigued by the song “Rawhide” (from the TV show of the same name) and the phrase “livin’ high and wide” that is used in the song. I have tried to research its meaning and can’t come with much more than that it might describe a wide open sky with clouds high above. Can you shed any light on the meaning of “living high and wide?” — Ginny Haddy.

Wow. As far as I know, I never actually watched Rawhide when it originally aired from 1959 through 1966, because I was never fond of westerns. But that theme song started playing in my head as soon as I read your question, and now I can’t get rid of it. (Time to break out my emergency tape of “My Sharona.” That kills anything.) “Rawhide” sure is a catchy tune, which isn’t surprising since it was written by Dimitri Tiomkin, winner of a slew of Oscars for his film scores, with lyrics by Ned Washington. I had not realized (Thanks, Wikipedia!) that the song has been recorded over the years by artists ranging from Frankie Laine (for the show) to Oingo Boingo. That’s what I call a tune with legs.

Set in the late 1860s, Rawhide followed “drovers” on a cattle drive from Texas to Missouri, with stops along the way to solve the problems of the locals, argue with Indians, etc. (which must be why the trip took seven years). The show was, in other words, basically “Route 66″ with cows (and a young Clint Eastwood). The first stanza of the theme song contains the phrase in question: “Keep movin’, movin’, movin’ / Though they’re disapprovin’ / Keep them doggies movin’ Rawhide! / Don’t try to understand ’em / Just rope and throw and grab ’em / Soon we’ll be living high and wide. / Boy my heart’s calculatin’ / My true love will be waitin’ / Be waiting at the end of my ride.”

Judging by the context, “living high and wide” is obviously a pleasant state of prosperity and ease, but the phrase “high and wide” in this sense is distressingly absent from all the dictionaries and collections of slang I’ve checked. “High,” of course, occurs in many phrases denoting well-being and wealth, such as “living high on the hog,” which comes from the fact that the best cuts of ham, bacon, etc., are found high on the flanks of pigs. The “high” in that phrase also connotes, beyond porcine anatomy, the sense of floating above everyday cares and woes, as “high and mighty” and similar phrases do. But “high and wide” was nowhere to be found among such figurative uses of “high.”

After a prolonged spell of staring at the cornfield across the road, however, a tiny light clicked on upstairs. I realized that Ned Washington, the lyricist, was almost certainly using a cropped form of the venerable US slang phrase “high, wide and handsome,” meaning, as defined by the Oxford English Dictionary (OED), “In a carefree manner, in good style” or, according to the Dictionary of American Regional English (DARE), “Grandiloquent, stylish, successful.”

The earliest printed occurrence of “high, wide and handsome” found so far comes from 1907 (“Tim could talk high, wide, and handsome when he set out to.”), but the phrase was almost certainly in wide oral use by the mid-19th century. It also seems to be largely associated with the American West, making it a good choice for a cowboy song. A glossary of slang published in 1932 lists the phrase and notes: “Common shout at a rodeo: ‘Ride him, Cowboy, high, wide and handsome.'”

As is often the case with slang, the logic behind “high, wide and handsome” is a bit hard to trace. “High” and “wide” both carry the sense of pride, respect and ease, as if one were strolling confidently down the street while being admired by lesser folk, and “handsome” certainly conveys a sense of being well-groomed and prosperous. The general flavor of the phrase is that the person is feeling and acting on top of the world.

Interestingly, “high, wide and handsome” seems to have later given birth to a more general sense of “unambiguously” or “forcefully” (“The day was riding high, wide and handsome into the deeps of the incredible blue sky,” 1939), as well as serving as a template for turns of phrase that denote anything but well-being (“The cops’ll be high, wide and helpless. They won’t know what in hell’s hit ’em,” 1971).

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