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Lex maniac

Investigating changes in American English vocabulary over the last 40 years

over the top

(1990’s | “excessive,” “beyond the pale,” “going too far”)

A Briticism. Two of my contemporary slang dictionaries, plus the great Partridge, list the phrase as having arisen in the Commonwealth in the late 1970’s or early 1980’s. LexisNexis bears this out. By the late 1980’s, the phrase is quite common in the U.K. and Australia and barely to be found in the U.S., although Steve Martin was quoted (in the Toronto Star) using the phrase as early as December 1988. As late as the mid-1990’s, it did not come up often in U.S. publications; when you did see it, it was usually in the arts ghetto: movie or television reviews, fashion news, etc. By 1999, it’s showing up unself-consciously in the financial press, political commentary — everywhere.

It’s not clear exactly how “over the top” wound up meaning “distastefully excessive.” Tony Thorne (Bloomsbury Dictionary of Contemporary Slang, 1990) alone ventured an explanation: “It derives from the general idea of being ‘off the scale,’ of being beyond measurable and acceptable limits” (p. 379). Thorne continues with an allusion to the British World War I usage, “go over the top,” i.e., leave the trench for the exposed battlefield, “throwing caution to the winds.” I would only add that “going over the top” in World War I usually meant certain death, and perhaps that hovers in the background, too; acting over the top may put paid to a friendship or a career. Thorne’s explanation is probably true but vaguely unsatisfying — so what else is new? As noted above, the phrase seems to have made it to these shores by way of arts journalism, doubtless driven by that mixture of cosmopolitanism and anglophilia that makes American artists so unpopular in the heartland.

“Over the top” used to mean something different, which hasn’t disappeared, though it may have been eclipsed a bit. The phrase normally followed “put” or “go” and meant something like “reach the goal.” Hall-of-Fame catcher Gary Carter said he might be the “ingredient to help put the Mets over the top,” after being traded from Montreal before the 1985 season. (This was not an idle boast; the Mets won the World Series two seasons later, with Carter as a key player.) You heard the phrase a lot during PBS fundraisers, as in “All we need is two more donations this hour to push us over the top.” This usage recalls the older “over the hump” and was probably influenced by it — wouldn’t it have made more sense for Carter to say “take the Mets to the top”?

The older usages all have a very fundamental point in common: “over the top” is an adverb, as it damn well ought to be. It self-evidently answers the question “where?”, and it always goes with an active verb. Guess what? It’s an adjective now. Until 1990 or so, in the U.S., it was unidiomatic to be over the top. It was impossible to combine the words into a hyphenated attributive adjective (“over-the-top behavior”). Now the adjective springs from our lips as easily as the adverb. In another generation it will pull ahead. That’s progress.

over the moon

(2000’s | athletese? | “overjoyed,” “ecstatic,” “giddy”)

Another Briticism. Well, we’ve inflicted our share of damage on the Queen’s English, I daresay.

I handled this expression just like “over the top,” running it by my three contemporary slang dictionaries (all now more or less out of date) and the all-knowing Partridge. Only two hits this time: Jonathon Green’s Dictionary of Contemporary Slang (Stein & Day, 1984) traces it back to British soccer slang of the 1970’s; so does World Wide Words. Partridge likewise dates it to the early 1970’s, though he doesn’t say anything about soccer. Certainly the expression was not current in the U.S. in my youth; “over the moon” was where the cow jumped. Even in the mid-1990’s, the song “Over the Moon” in Rent made no reference to the sense of “thrilled.” Only within the past few years do I recall seeing the phrase with any regularity. I found scattered U.S. uses in the late 1990’s on LexisNexis; the phrase gets a little more common in the last ten years, but it remains much more standard in British English. (It probably followed the same path to the U.S. as “over the top,” first adopted by artists and arts writers). Maybe it isn’t sufficiently established in American English to warrant discussion here, but it’s an expression you need to know to understand the news, so I’m willing to include it. I think it’s creeping in, but it may stay decorously on the sidelines, the property of visiting Australians and the like. Do most Americans recognize it as British English?

You say it when something really wonderful happens, like winning the lottery or meeting your idol or a similar once-in-a-lifetime event. Too happy and excited to stay moored to pokey old Earth. It’s the result of a single spectacular event or revelation; mere contentment doesn’t send you over the moon. Like “over the top,” it’s something you are, not somewhere you go or jump or fly.

This pairing was inspired by a speech error: an architect quoted in Newsday (April 24, 2012) as saying, “I am over the top,” after learning that one of his designs had won an award. He must have meant “over the moon.” But if this turns out to be the start of something big, and “over the top” picks up yet another meaning, don’t say I didn’t warn you.

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