The Grammarphobia Blog

Brownie points and brown-nosing

Q: How did “brownie points” come to mean the credit one gets for sucking up to the boss?

A: The most common explanations are that the expression is derived from either the term “brown-nose” or the merit points supposedly earned by the young Girl Scouts known as Brownies. Two of our favorite language references differ on this.

The Oxford English Dictionary says “brownie point,” a colloquial usage that originated in the US, is “probably a development” from “brown-nose,” but it’s “popularly associated” with Brownies, “hence frequently spelled with capital initial.”

The Random House Historical Dictionary of American Slang says the expression comes “from the point system used for advancement by the Brownies of the Girl Scouts of America; but strongly reinforced by brown-nose.”

All the evidence we’ve seen supports the OED explanation. What’s more, there has never been a point system for getting ahead in the American Brownies.

Lauren Robles, a spokesman for the Girl Scouts of the USA , told us that “there has not been a point system to earn badges or for advancement for Brownies in Girl Scouts.”

The OED, an etymological dictionary based on historical evidence, defines “brownie point” as “a notional credit for an achievement; favour in the eyes of another, esp. gained by sycophantic or servile behaviour.”

The dictionary’s earliest written example is from a 1963 issue of the journal American Speech: “To curry favor with a professor: brown nose … brownie … get brownie points.”

The word “brownie” in that citation was student slang for the noun “brown-nose.” A 1944 issue of American Speech includes this definition:

Brownie. 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.”

(Some standard dictionaries consider “brown-nose” and “brownnose” equal variants, but we think the hyphenated spelling is easier to read.)

Getting back to “brownie points,” the earliest example we’ve seen is a dozen years older than the OED’s.

A column in the March 15, 1951, issue of the Los Angeles Times uses the term for imaginary credits to determine whether a husband is in favor at home or in the doghouse.

The phrase is found several times in the column, beginning with this comment overheard in an elevator: “I should have been home two hours ago. … I’ll never catch up on my brownie points.” When questioned about the usage, the speaker replies:

“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.”

The speaker was probably using “days of the leprechauns” to mean olden times, not suggesting that leprechauns had anything to do with the origin of the expression.

Interestingly, however, the Girl Scout “Brownies” were named after other mythical creatures—the helpful household sprites called “brownies” in Scottish and English folklore.

Robert Baden-Powell, founder of Scouting, got the name from “The Brownies,” an 1870 short story by Juliana Horatio Ewing about two children who try to be as helpful as the spirits.

You’ll probably run across several questionable theories on the internet about how “brownie points” came to mean imaginary credits earned to curry favor, including these:

  • World War II food rationing, where brown points were used to buy meat and fat;
  • the use of “brownie points” for demerits in World War II army jargon;
  • brown vouchers, or “brownies,” awarded to Saturday Evening Post delivery boys in the 1930s;
  • demerits, or “brownie points,” that G. R. Brown, general superintendent of the Fall Brook Railway in New York and Pennsylvania, gave to employees in the late 19th century.

However, we agree with the OED that “brownie points” is probably derived from “brown-nose,” a term that showed up in the late 1930s.

The dictionary defines the verb “brown-nose” as “to curry favour (with), to flatter,” and the noun (as well as “brown-noser”) as “a sycophant.” It describes the usage as “chiefly U.S slang.”

Oxford cites Webster’s Third New International Dictionary of the English Language Unabridged (1961) as saying the term is derived “from the implication that servility is tantamount to having one’s nose in the anus of the person from whom advancement is sought.”

The earliest examples we’ve seen for both the noun and verb “brown-nose” are from a 1939 issue of American Speech that describes the usage as “military college slang.”

Although the slang term originated “among speakers in the military,” the journal says, it’s “now widespread but chiefly among young and mid-aged speakers.”

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