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This may look and sound like one of those grandiloquent words that arose on the American frontier, alongside sockdolager, hornswoggle, dumfungled, absquatulate, goshbustified and their kin.

No, it’s British, dammit! To be more precise, it’s Scots, as it started life in 1823 in Blackwood’s Edinburgh Magazine, in one of a series of imaginary conversations entitled Noctes Ambrosianae that were set in a tavern in Edinburgh. One member, Odoherty, whom you may conclude was Irish, commented sarcastically on a snatch of a poem by Lord Byron: “Very toploftical, to be sure.”

It was a slang term — roughly translatable as high-flown, highfalutin, high and mighty or stuck-up — that was rarely to be found in printed texts of the nineteenth century. It seems to have caught on soon after (Thomas Carlyle used it in a letter in 1824) and we know it had reached Ireland no later than the early 1840s:

Thomas Wilson, who spoke in a strain so ambitious and toploftical as to be scarcely intelligible to the magistrates, succeeded after much ado in making their worships comprehend that on the night previous he had had a jollification with a friend in Merrion-street.

Freeman’s Journal and Daily Commercial Advertiser (Dublin), 21 Mar. 1842.

It was taken to the US around this time and had greater success there, no doubt because it fitted the extravagant lexicality of that rambunctious nation. In the 1850s toplofty was formed from it. Though the heyday of both words is long over and toploftical has vanished, on rare occasions the shorter word still graces our private conversations and the public press.

Its origin is disputed. The Oxford English Dictionary suggests it comes from top loft, though it has no entry for the term. Examples in books indicate that it was literally the topmost storey of a high building, usually a storage area. Presumably its height above the ground was the stimulus for the figurative expression.

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Copyright © Michael Quinion, 1996–. All rights reserved.
Page created 21 Jan. 2012

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The English language is forever changing. New words appear; old ones fall out of use or alter their meanings. World Wide Words tries to record at least a part of this shifting wordscape by featuring new words, word histories, words in the news, and the curiosities of native English speech.

World Wide Words is copyright © Michael Quinion, 1996–. All rights reserved.
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Last modified: 21 January 2012.