I read the phrase "USA intellectualism: a mile wide, an inch deep". What does it mean?

  • 3
    Welcome to EL&U; your question in its present form is off-topic (it is not about language, but about culture; and even that is in a problematic form of an over-generalization, probably, or maybe not, taken out of context). Can you please try to make it about language i.e. in short - what is the word/phrase that you don't understand (plus you need to show why dictionary did not help).
    – Unreason
    Commented Dec 14, 2011 at 15:02
  • It was a graffiti I saw in a picture on a google's results page 1 year ago.
    – quantme
    Commented Dec 18, 2011 at 7:02
  • This phrase doesn't get any hits in onelook.com , so it shouldn't be treated as "General Reference".
    – Golden Cuy
    Commented Feb 26, 2017 at 3:07
  • 1
    Related to the concept of Jack of all trades, master of none. Commented Feb 26, 2017 at 6:30
  • It's an old, old expression (certainly goes back to my youth). Here is one reference: Nye wrote that the river "had a very large circulation, but very little influence. It covers a good deal of ground, but it is not deep. In some places it is a mile wide and three-quarters of an inch deep." And so the phrase was born. It's not meant to be a compliment. In fact, it quickly began to be used in politics, academia, and other fields to describe people whose knowledge is superficial.
    – Hot Licks
    Commented Apr 2, 2018 at 22:42

3 Answers 3


It doesn't matter whether it's intellectualism or something else, what you need to understand is the meaning of "depth" and "width" in the context of knowledge or expertise.

A depth of knowledge or understanding, is knowing all the fine detail and nuance of the subject.

A wide, or broad, knowledge, is knowing the basics, but on a wide range of subjects.

So, if I can write "hello world" in 100 programming languages, my knowledge is broad. If I can write a complex program in Java, my knowledge is deep.

If I can play "Jingle Bells" on any instrument, badly, my expertise is broad / wide. If I can play a difficult piece, beautifully, on guitar, my expertise is deep.

"USA intellectualism: a mile wide, an inch deep": A mile is very wide, compared to an inch. They are saying that US intellectuals pontificate on all kinds of subjects, but the are not looking at the details.


Michener had the phrase in his book “Centenial”. The early pioneers west used it to discribe the Platt River. “A mile wide and an inch deep, too thick to drink and too thin to plow”


"Deep" in this sentence refers to the amount of thought and information contained in one's ideas. "Wide" means variety.

So the idea expressed in this sentence is that Americans as a whole have many ideas or positions, but those ideas are poorly thought out and not backed by evidence, reality, etc.

Is it true? That is a different question.

  • variety now I can figure out the meaning.
    – quantme
    Commented Dec 18, 2011 at 7:14

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