If you have an Irish grandmother or ever read Ulysses, James Joyce’s challenging literary masterpiece, you might have run across the intriguing phrase, “wigs on the green.”
This old-fashioned term harks back to at least the eighteenth century when men of wealth and class wore wigs over their natural hair. In common usage, it refers to a duel or physical fight fought on a village “green” or central park area.
The Meaning of the Phrase
Today, this phrase is considered outdated, but you might still run into it in classic books or from the mouth of an elderly relative from the Emerald Isle.
The idiom is used to refer to an unpleasant development or violent altercation.
Here are two examples of how the phrase “wigs on the green” might be used written or verbally. “Things become tense when Sir Philip and Lord George encounter each other. Wigs would be on the green next time they meet.”
In Ulysses, James Joyce uses the phrase to describe children squalling over a coveted ball. According to the famous Irish author, a child named Tommy wanted a ball that Edy also wanted. Tommy said that a baby couldn’t play with the ball and that if Edy took the ball, there would be wigs on the green.
The Origin of the Phrase
Back in the day, when men wore powdered wigs and defended their honor with dueling swords or pistols, the contestants often met in public on a village green. Since men wore wigs perched on top of their heads, these powdered fashion accessories could be easily knocked off during a fight. As a result of an altercation, it was common for wigs to end up scattered across the green.
Wigs rolling around on the ground, knocked from the heads of dignified men, often amused gawking onlookers, and led to the rollicking phrase. According to some historians, this didn’t refer to any old green. Instead, from 1782-1800, the Irish House of Parliament stood on the Dublin green. Since a lot of political riots and rumpuses occurred there, wigs were always scattering across the famous green.
Although the phrase isn’t used much today, except in rare historical fiction, the term does appear in famous fiction and nonfiction such as All Things Considered, G. K. Chesterton’s 1908 essay collection, and Nancy Mitford’s Wigs on the Green, a 1935 satire on the rising Fascist movement.