Q From Joanne Hassett, Ireland: Do you know what the phrase wigs on the green means?
A It’s an intriguing expression that’s still to be heard from time to time, though it’s seriously out of fashion, just like the wigs it mentions. Wigs on the green refers to a fight, brawl or fracas, or to a difference of opinion that could lead to fisticuffs. It would once often appear as there’ll be wigs on the green, as a warning (or a prediction) that an altercation is likely to occur.
I suppose that there will be some wigs on the green in connection with the recent manifesto signed by a string of very eminent doctors on the subject of what is called “alcohol”.
All Things Considered, a collection of essays by G K Chesterton, 1908. Three decades later, Nancy Mitford published a work with the title Wigs on the Green, which lampooned the Fascist movement.
Wigs on the Green was originally Irish, dating from the eighteenth century, when men usually wore wigs. If a fight started, the first thing that happened was that the wigs of those involved would be knocked off and would roll incongruously about on the grass, to the amusement of bystanders and the embarrassment of participants.
If this writer is to be believed, it wasn’t just any green:
The Irish Parliament House (1782-1800) was on the Green, Dublin, in days when wigs were worn. The Green was the constant scene of riots, and as constantly wigs would strew the roadway.
Passing English of the Victorian Era, by James Redding Ware, 1909.
I can’t leave an Irish expression without quoting a famous Irish writer:
But Tommy said he wanted the ball and Edy told him no that baby was playing with the ball and if he took it there’d be wigs on the green but Tommy said it was his ball and he wanted his ball and he pranced on the ground, if you please.
Ulysses, by James Joyce, 1922.