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Brownie points

Q From James Brunskill, UK: It is quite common these days to hear of people gaining Brownie Points as reward for some small favour or as a sign of approbation. What is the origin of this phrase?

A It’s originally American. The Oxford English Dictionary notes its first appearance in print in 1963, but it was definitely old even then. A trawl through a database of US newspapers yields a lot of examples from the 1950s, two from 1954 describing it as school slang. (Being able to find these is not to denigrate the skill of the OED editor who compiled that entry two decades ago, for whom such searchable electronic files would have been a paradise beyond imagining.) One of these reports was in the Daily News of Newport, Rhode Island, dated 15 April that year; I reproduce it as a quick glance down nostalgia alley for all those American high-school alumni who are even older than I am:

“We want more new lingo” writes a Missouri column fan who wants to be the first to spring new vernacular on her group. So here goes: Miami young people keep their teachers agog with their lingo says Sanford Schnier, of the Miami Daily News. He offers these “cool” expressions: “Flake out” — Too much study is tiring. “Browse me on the scene” — Request for information. “Pull a boo boo” — Make an error. “Racking up the Brownie points” — Teacher’s pet. “Toe Dancers” — High school sissies. “Calories” — Plump girls. “Fluffs” — Fat boys.

However, flake out, in the sense of being exhausted, is actually American services slang from early in World War Two. The Historical Dictionary of American Slang argues that Brownie points, too, was US army slang from that period, a view backed up by indirect and anecdotal evidence.

The earliest known example so far found appeared in the Los Angeles Times in March 1951, which is worth repeating because of its different gloss on the meaning: “You don’t know about brownie points? All my buddies keep score. In fact every married male should know about ‘em. It’s a way of figuring where you stand with the little woman — favor or disfavor. Started way back in the days of the leprechauns, I suppose, long before there were any doghouses.”

Several suggestions have been put forward for where it comes from. Most writers rule out straightaway the idea that it is North American railway jargon, though a Brownie was and still is the slang term for a merit or demerit point in the Brown system of discipline used in that industry. The system was widely introduced on US and Canadian railways at the end of the nineteenth century; it was invented by Superintendent George B Brown of the Fall Brook Railway Company. Though the term Brownie point for one of the demerits is only recorded from 1942, it is almost certainly older. Since this has the opposite sense to our phrase, it may seem unlikely to be its origin. But it might have contributed to the idea.

Another possibility was recalled by several subscribers who were children in the 1930s. The Curtis Publishing Company, publishers of the Saturday Evening Post, the Ladies Home Journal, and the Country Gentleman, had their magazines delivered to home on a subscription basis using an army of young boys. The boys received small commissions and also qualified for green and brown vouchers (respectively known as greenies and brownies). Five greenies equalled one brownie. The Company published a catalogue offering a variety of goods for which brownies could be redeemed. However, so far as I can discover, these weren’t actually referred to as brownie points.

Douglas Wilson has suggested that its origin may lie in part in wartime American food rationing, in which ration points in various colours were required to make food purchases: red and brown ones for meats and fats, for example. In particular, there are many references in newspapers during 1943–44 to brown points, which may have contributed the points part of the expression.

However, it seems that Brownie points is actually an allusion to the junior branch of the Girl Scouts (the Girl Guides in other countries), which was named by Lady Baden Powell after the elves that do helpful things around the house for small rewards. Linking it to their merit badges, or their good deeds, is a neat idea, to such an extent that even now the phrase almost always appears with an initial capital letter. The phrase seems to have been a sarcastic, backhanded compliment. To earn credit by doing some little task to earn a badge or prize is fine for Brownies but it’s childish and a bit embarrassing if an adult does it. The army’s tendency to have soldiers do things that seemed silly and child-like no doubt contributed to the popularity of the phrase.

The experts are agreed that the sense was given greater strength and impetus through scatological undertones, being intimately (and I use that word advisedly) associated with the older term brown-nose, for a sycophant or toady, a person who curries favour to such an extent that his nose seems to be up his superior’s backside. Brownie by itself is recorded as student slang from 1944 in this sense in the journal American Speech, which defined it as “A person who is always asking and answering questions in class to impress the instructor. Also a person who stays after class to try to insinuate himself into the teacher’s good graces”. A teacher’s pet or apple polisher, in fact. An earlier issue of the same journal suggested that brown-nose itself was pre-war student slang that was carried into the American military by cadets.

It seems probable that two — or even three — threads came together to form the phrase. There’s no reason why a slang term should have just one origin, and in fact the more antecedents and associations one has, the more likely it is to become popular.

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Page created 12 Mar 2005; Last updated 26 Mar 2005