Q From John Schestag: We all know top notch means the best or top quality. But was there a real notch in some situation where there could actually be a top notch?
A The short answer is that we don’t know but wish we did.
The problem is that the term appears in print for the first time in the 1840s already fully formed in its modern sense with nothing to point to where it comes from. The earliest example I’ve come across is in an advertisement in the Huron Reflector of Norwalk, Ohio, dated 29 April 1845, which is worth quoting for its period flavour:
J. WHYLER Has just arrived from the Great Emporium, with a Tremendous Cargo of Spring and Summer Goods, Which he is now unloading at his Old Stand in Norwalk — consisting of the choicest selections he ever made — the top notch of Fashions and Patterns — and an extensive variety of DRY GOODS, to suit his Old Customers and every other person who will give him a call.
The term becomes widely recorded in the later 1840s and early 1850s, suggesting that it had suddenly come into fashion, perhaps because of some incident or happening, though there’s nothing to show what that might have been. It seems clear enough that there was some sort of activity in which notches or notching played a part and in which reaching the top one was to be first-rate or the very best. But what that might have been is a mystery. A plausible idea is that it was a scoring system in some game; another is that it’s somehow related to lumberjacks, who would cut notches in bit trees and hammer in boards so they could climb to a height suitable to start felling.
An ingenious explanation was recently put forward by a contributor to a British mailing list. He alleged that at one time a suitor visiting a young lady was allowed by the girl’s father to stay just as long as a courting candle continued to burn. The candle was set in a holder that permitted it to be raised or lowered by a system of notches, so changing its burning time. If the father really liked the young man, he set the candle on its highest notch, in the hope that by spending a lot of time together the couple would decide to marry.
This has all the hallmarks of folk etymology, not least because I can’t find any reference to a courting candle, so called, before very recent times (though a related custom is recorded, for example, among Afrikaners and a lot of old candleholders had devices to raise the candle as it burnt down to keep the flame at a constant height). Many illustrations of candle holders with this name exist online, but all I’ve seen are made from a metal spiral, with no notches in sight.
Nice story, though.