What Does "High and Mighty" Mean?
When people use the term "high and mighty" as an idiom in everyday speech, they are usually referring to unwarranted arrogance in an individual. For example, a person with wealth and power who acted as if he was entitled to better treatment than others might be described as acting like he is high and mighty. In theory, the term could also be used in a complimentary way to describe how powerful someone was, but in actual use, it is almost always meant to insult or make people reconsider their relative status.
Over the centuries, people born with royal blood have often been considered "high born." The public often thought of them as having higher status than regular people, and some cultures actually attributed this to an association with divinity. Experts believe that the idiom "high and mighty" developed as a way to mock rulers for taking too much advantage of their status. For example, if a ruler was eating expensive food while his people starved, that could be cause to mock the individual using the idiom. Over time, the application of the term evolved, with people using it to describe behaviors rather than a reference to a specific kind of birth background.
One of the main reasons people use this idiom is to describe arrogant behavior, and people who behave with a sense of entitlement and ignore the needs of others might be mocked using the term. When people use this idiom in a confrontational manner, they might intend to make an individual reconsider his arrogance, bringing the person back down to Earth, but it is also often used behind a person's back. For example, if a manager was acting high and mighty, the workers under him might use the term during conversations about him while he wasn't present.
Another common use of the idiom "high and mighty" is when someone oversteps his bounds of authority. For example, if a person who is equal to others in a group started bossing people around, that person might anger his co-workers, and they might let him know right away that he should stop acting so high and mighty. This sort of use of the term could work in any situation where the people are of relatively equal status, including many kinds of personal relationships.
Sometimes the term is used with lot of intentional sarcasm. For example, someone at a party might say, "Tom would be here, but he's so high and mighty now that he doesn't want to hang out with his old friends anymore." In theory, the term could also be used in a complimentary fashion to describe someone's ascendancy to a greater status, but that is basically unheard of.
What gets me about this expression is that there are people who really are "high and mighty", but in a good way. They really do have the power and the authority to issue orders and command respect from other people. The owner and CEO of my company doesn't have an arrogant bone in his body, but I still respect him as the man in charge.
This expression really only applies whenever a person is ACTING high and mighty, but doesn't really have the juice to back it up. My older brother was like that when we were growing up. Just because he was born first, he thought he could rule over the rest of us. He knew what the right thing to do was all the time, and mostly the "right thing" was whatever HE wanted. Now that we're all adults, the rest of us like to remind him of his former "high and mighty" attitude.
I've had a few co-workers I could easily describe as acting "high and mighty". One time we had a major project and a strict deadline, so the boss assigned a special team leader to keep everybody focused and motivated. The guy he picked really didn't have any more authority over the project than the rest of us, but he started acting like he did. If any of us took a coffee break, he'd come up behind that person and bark an order or two. If there was a difference of opinion, it was his idea that would be implemented.
We finally told the boss about the guy's high and mighty attitude, and he said as soon as that project was completed, he would never again put one person in a position of power like that. If a project needed a supervisor, he would do it himself.
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