meaning and origin of the phrase ‘wigs on the green’

The colloquial phrase wigs on the green denotes a violent quarrel, a sharp altercation.

It refers to the fact that wigs are liable to fall or to be pulled off in a fray—see footnote.

This phrase is of Irish-English origin, and the associations are still chiefly Irish.

The earliest instance that I have found is from Saunders’s News-Letter, and Daily Advertiser (Dublin, County Dublin, Ireland) of Friday 3rd March 1820:

Extract of a Letter from Athlone, March 1.
“This Town for the last week has presented a scene that I do not recollect to have been equalled at any period during the war: the continual passage of troops, of all arms, two or three different descriptions of a day—their baggage, billetings, trumpetings, and drummings, “give dreadful note of preparation.” The enemy, however, does not seem in the least intimidated by it; they have appeared in formidable numbers almost every night, and each night in a different place; they have taken all the arms in this and the County of Roscommon, from gentle and simple, and throughout a great part of the County of Galway—hitherto the Leinster side of the Shannon had been remarkably quiet, but the flame is spreading fast, and they opened the campaign in Westmeath last night, by robbing arms, from several houses, and one within a mile of this Town, near Mr. Bruces!

“As to your “Peelers,”1 they may do upon common occasions, but they are laughed at now by both sides; in short, it is ridiculous to suppose any thing less than a rigid enforcement of the Insurrection Act, can ever be attended with effect.
“You may expect to hear of ‘wigs on the green,’ in this neighbourhood, ere long, unless the discovery in London may damp their ardour.”

1 The noun peeler, now denoting a police officer, was originally a nickname for a member of the Peace Preservation Force, established in 1814 by the British Conservative statesman Robert Peel (1788-1850) during his term as Chief Secretary of Ireland (1812-18).

The second-earliest occurrence of the phrase that I have found is from the chapter Life in Camp of Tales of Field and Flood; with Sketches of Life at Home (Edinburgh, 1829), by an author named John Malcolm, who had served in the 42nd Royal Highland Regiment of Foot, and of whom very little is known. However, here, wigs on the green (which nothing in the context specifically associates with Irish use) seems to be a euphemism for persons killed.

Not even “upon ’Change”2 itself do we meet with a greater number of Quidnuncs than in camp. “Pray, have you heard the news, Sir?” “No; what are they?” “Why, there is to a fight,—that you may rely upon as a fact. I had it from my friend, Captain B—— of the —— regiment, who had it from an intimate acquaintance, who had it from an officer of the Guards, who had it from an aide-de-camp; and that, you know, is good authority. The right of the enemy is to be attacked and turned, and then our division is to storm their left. A devil of a position it is, no doubt; but never mind that, sudden death or glorious victory,—noble alternatives! They that survive will be lucky dogs,—all captains to a dead certainty. Egad, though, but there will be some wigs on the green!”

2 upon ’Change: at the Royal Exchange; on the stock exchange

The earliest instance of the form wigs upon the green that I have found is a punning one; it is from an article about a declaration issued by the members of the Irish Bar, published in The Freeman’s Journal (Dublin, County Dublin, Ireland) of Wednesday 2nd February 1831:

Now we have wigs and wig blocks3, and briefless bags, and musty parchment, as so many counts in the indictment against the agitators!—It is all well if we have not “wigs upon the green.”

3 wig-block: a rounded block for placing a wig upon when being made or not in use

Likewise, the caption to the following cartoon published in The Tatler (London, England) of Wednesday 18th January 1911 alludes to the wigs worn by lawyers:

'wigs on the green benches' - The Tatler (London) - 18 January 1911

From “John Bull”

Wigs on the green benches
John Bull’s funny way of getting “the will of the people”
[The new House of Commons comprises nearly 200 lawyers]


Note: The following phrases are based on similar notions:
keep your hair on, which might have originally referred to pulling off one’s wig in exasperation, anger or frustration;
keep your shirt on, from the image of taking off one’s shirt before getting into a fight;
to go bald-headed, based on the notion of leaving one’s hat behind in a rush of impetuosity.

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