The Grammarphobia Blog

Topology

Q: Please comment on this UK slang expression for suicide: “to top oneself,” usually in lieu of facing trial or dishonor or worse at the hands of villains.

A: Since the 13th century, people have used the noun “top” to refer to the head. And since the 18th century, the verb “top” has been used in one way or another to mean to behead or to put to death by hanging.

(In the 19th century, “topsman” was a slang word for a hangman.)

The Oxford English Dictionary’s earliest citation for the use of “top” in the executioner’s sense is from Charles Hitchin’s crime exposé The Regulator (1718): “He being known to be an old Practitioner, will certainly be cast and top’d, alias hang’d for the same.”

Now, according to the OED, “to top someone” usually means to commit murder and “to top oneself” means to commit suicide.

The sense of topping oneself first showed up in the mid-20th century, according to the dictionary’s citations. Here are some suicidal examples:

“He also took my tie and belt so that I could not top myself” (from Frank Norman’s Bang to Rights: An Account of Prison Life, 1958).

“I have to try and get a key to it all, otherwise I’ll just top myself” (from the former BBC publication The Listener, 1983).

Let’s end this on a lighter note with an excerpt for the campaign season from Cole Porter’s “You’re the Top”:

I’m the nominee of the G.O.P.
Or GOP!
But if, baby, I’m the bottom,
You’re the top!

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