Sunday, February 26, 2012

topping oneself, topping and tailing

A short post, but this headline (courtesy of this tweeter) is worth reproducing:

The headline is about an American basketball player, Jeremy Lin, who is all the rage these days. The problem is that the headline would be rather upsetting reading for a BrE-speaking Lin fan.  In BrE to top oneself is a colloquial way of saying 'to kill oneself'.  But it was the AmE meaning 'to surpass oneself/one's previous achievements' that was clearly intended by the New York Times

It's not necessarily the case that the "AmE" meaning is entirely AmE here--the 'surpass' meaning of top is general English. But with the reflexive pronoun, it's not the first meaning to come to mind in BrE. The 'suicide' meaning comes from a more general use of top meaning 'to kill'--which originally referred to killing by hanging, but which is used more generally now for execution/killing in BrE, but not AmE.

And while I'm talking about topping... The OED mentions to top and tail [a baby], which I only learned as a new mother in the UK. Not having been a new mother in the US, I can't swear this is BrE only, but corpus and internet evidence seems to suggest so.  If you know top and tail meaning to cut the ends off (of) vegetables (e.g. green beans) (which seems to be used a bit in AmE, but not as much as in BrE), then the image of topping and tailing one's infant child is a horrid thought. But what it means is to wash only the head and bottom of the child, as newborn skin doesn't need or appreciate lots of unnecessary washing.

And for another verbal use of top in BrE, see this old post on top up.

Oh, and P.S.
I'm sorry not to have been blogging much lately, in spite of my grand intentions at the start of the year. But here's a bit of what I've done instead:


ros said...

Have no experience of babies, but 'topping and tailing' is definitely cutting the ends of beans and other vegetables to me (BrE). Even I wouldn't do it to a child!

Lucy said...

As a BrE speaker, I read the headline as a really misguided pun, and was a bit shocked!

As for top and tail, I'd never heard the baby thing (not being a mother or even close), but definitely for veg.

PaulAtNorthGare said...

Also perhaps relevant: the sense of "topping" meaning to take the dominant role in a BDSM scene (cf. "bottoming"). To "top oneself" in that context paints another picture probably not intended by the headline writer.

Eloise said...

I'd agree with the topping and tailing for veg as a BrE speaker. I've heard it with cleaning fish too.

The Lin headline, I'd use surpasses - tops just doesn't work for me. Thinking a bit more about it, although I probably wouldn't use it, "my hand tops that" or similar I would understand with tops = surpasses. It's that "himself" that just pushes really hard into the suicide framing. My next one, if that doesn't make sense is probably auto-erotic in some fashion as Paul suggested.

David Crosbie said...

Not quite the same as 'surpass' is the sense in top the list or top the poll. I think I could also say top the rankings but there must be few if any other possible objects.

For me, perhaps not for others, the 'surpass' sense involves doing or being something similar to greater effect. I wouldn't say Jane's beauty tops my ability to describe it.

Actually, I find top='surpass' a bit old-fashioned — except in the challenge Top that!.

I note that according to the OED,top oneself used originally to mean 'hang oneself' — and for me this is still the default meaning.

Ø said...

I was unfamiliar with the BrE use, but even so the headline seemed a bit off. "Can you top this?" is a stock phrase in AmE, but it seems to me that you don't top someone, you top something they did.

John Cowan said...

I vaguely know these meanings, but for me top oneself suggests either auto-eroticism or auto-sadism.

smudgeon said...

to "top yourself" is commonly used in Australia to mean suicide. but the usage to "top something" is commonly used, so i would gather it would be understood well enough - in context.

still, i had to look twice at this headline!

S said...

In Indian English, the meaning of "top" as in "top the rankings" and "top the class" leads to the noun "topper": the "toppers" in some exam are the student who get the top ranks, or more generally, "toppers" are academically good students.

Picky said...

My British English doesn't include the baby thing. But in addition to vegetable trimming BrE does have a figurative use: to précis.

Bill said...

If the NYT title had been in, for example, the NYPost then I might have imagined it could mean 'suicide', but I couldn't imagine the NYT using such a disrespectful explanation for a suicide, so would probably have worked out what it meant.

As for 'top and tail' I've often heard elderly women (e.g. my mother & various friends/family) using it to mean a basic clean of the face and private areas (groin and underarm) most likely to need a bit of a freshen-up if you haven't got time or facilities to hand to have a proper bath or shower.

Obviously I speak from a British English viewpoint.

David Crosbie said...


In Indian English, the meaning of "top" as in "top the rankings" and "top the class"

I personally can't say top the class, and I think this is generally true of British speakers. I (we?) can only top(='come top of') something that is in essence numerically sorted. A class can be numerically sorted, but that's an optional extra.

I wasn't sure about top the charts, but I've just seen it on Google.

The closest use to Indian topper is perhaps the tops. A topper is a hat.

I see in the OED supplement that in America tops has a meaning I've never heard (or at least never noticed): 'at most'.

Harry Campbell said...

Ouch, that's an embarrassing. Quite a shocking thing to read till you work out what they meant! Even the notorious British tabloids would be unlikely to publish something so insensitive!

Another meaning of "top and tail" is to rehearse only the beginnings and ends of something like pieces in a concert or scenes in a play, in order to focus on starting and finishing them well, or to practise getting between them.

globalwriter said...

Not long ago, amongst journalists -- in particular those working the "wire services" -- to top and tail meant finishing off or polishing a story, especially one for which there is with "a new top" or lede that by its nature requires changes in the body of the story -- possibly inclyuding a new conclusion, or tail.

Jill said...

As an American who has sung in a few British choirs, I first heard 'top and tail' in the context of a final rehearsal before a concert: the conductor doesn't want to wear the singers out but does want to the choir to sing the beginning and the end of each piece, as those bits can easily go wrong.

jb said...

A similar phrasing for suicide does exist in AmE - "to off oneself"

Mrs Redboots (Annabel Smyth) said...

I (BrE) would definitely read "tops himself" as committing suicide. To the point where I would say to someone else in the room with me, "Oh dear, so-and-so has killed himself" and then have to retract it once I'd read the article.

And yes, for me, "topping-and-tailing" can be done to vegetables and babies!

Sean said...

When we were young we used the term "topping and tailing" to refer to sharing a bed, one child at each end!

Ø said...

"Top and tail" seem to be a railroading term as well.

EK said...

Ø: "Can you top this?" is a stock phrase in AmE, but it seems to me that you don't top someone, you top something they did.

It's implied that he's topping something he did.

Anonymous said...

I hope this isn't inappropriate, but it's illustrative so I'll take the chance.

I'm another American living in England, one who participates in the BDSM scene. The usual word on the US west coast for the person who runs the scene, gives the commands, causes pain, and so forth, is the 'top'. In England I've heard 'master' or 'dominant' instead. The US verb is 'to top [someone]'. This caused tremendous amusement the first time I used that verb with an English bottom in negotiating a future scene. Fortunately he didn't think I was actually going to kill him.

Once we worked out what he found so bloody funny, I started laughing as well and reminded him of the scene from Father Ted: 'When I said "take care of" the rabbits, I was thinking in a...Julie Andrews kind of way. I now realise you thought I meant it in sort of an Al Pacino way.'

Ø said...

Off-topic, strictly speaking, but a true story.

X has a house on a hill with a nice view. Y owns some land at the bottom.

"That pine tree of yours has gotten taller and it's obstructing our view now. Would you mind if we have it topped?"

"Sure, go ahead."

So X pays a guy to come with ropes and saws and carefully remove the highest six feet or so. And then the tree dies.

Caroline said...

We also used to use top and tail to mean two kids sleeping at opposite ends of the same bed when I was a kid in the UK. And for the veg as well!

richardelguru said...

top and tail:

There's an old folk song from the part of East Anglia where I was born, Bungay Roger, which has a line where the rather reluctant 'sojer' laments, "I wish I ware back on the farm topp'n' tail'n' tarnips with a busted owd fork an' a rusty owd knife"...
Sorry for the bad norfolk accent :-)
tarnips = turnips; owd = old

Anonymous said...

@David Norris: the AmE usage of "tops"="at most, maximum" is very common.

E.g.: "five minutes, tops" gives over a million Google hits.

"Take one moment--five minutes, tops--and read this article"

David Crosbie said...


There's a fine version of the song by Jumbo Brightwell under the title Muddley Barracks on this CD.

His last verse — like that of other versions — involves mutton and Wouldn't I cut 'n rather than tarnips.

There's an odd but sweet relay version by two girls who may really be from Norfolk on this video. Their last verse is different again.

Dru said...

My experience (BrE) agreed with those who were shocked by the headline. Even if 'top' could be used in other ways as a verb, the meaning with a reflexive is so strongly linked to suicide, that it prevails over any other possible sense.

Incidentally, what does BDSM stand for?

Sarah said...

To me, top and tail means either the vegetable trimming or two kids sharing a bed.

'Top oneself' is suicide.

'The tops' is rather Enid Blyton.

Anonymous said...

AmE - my first reaction to that headline was also 'huh?' as well. I agree with (anon below David Crosbie).
My first thought was "with what?" and more along the lines of pancake toppings, though now that I think about it, it would have made more sense to add which particular stat it was that he improved over his previous career record (by scoring 28 points). So then the 'tops something' goal could be achieved - 'Lin tops himself with 28 points' - better but I still get the reading of physically pouring 28 points on his head, but more context is always better.

Harry Campbell said...

I think a suitable BrE equivalent might be "Lin outdoes himself". Not a very snappy headline though.

David Crosbie said...

Harry Campbell

Or, maintaining the spacial metaphor,


Esha said...

As an American musician living in England, I can testify to the musical usage described here by others. I do, though, still read "topping oneself" as bettering one's own previous record (AmE).

Harry Campbell said...

@David Crosbie is right of course, in practice in the British press it would be something much more oblique and probably involving the obligatory punning: Linn "reaches for the skies" or "soars to new heights" or something. Even leaving aside the unfortunate double meaning, "Lin tops himself" is probably just too banally straightforward for a British headline.

Kevin said...

Harry Campbell wrote: >>in practice in the British press it would be something much more oblique and probably involving the obligatory punning: Linn "reaches for the skies" or "soars to new heights" or something.<<

Far worse than that, I'm afraid. Something like "LIN-CREDIBLE!".

Kayla Madsen said...

How about to top something off? Is that the same in BrE? OR it also means to kick the bucket?

David Crosbie said...


How about to top something off? Is that the same in BrE?

That depends on what it means in AmE. The only transitive sense given in the OED is

To fill up to the top (a tank already partly full) with fuel. U.S. colloq.

I think most BrE speakers would say fill it up. We might say top it up, but that is much more often used for filling glasses to the top with drink — or filling accounts to the top with money.

There are intransitive senses of top off, but the OED considers them variants of top out — itself a pretty uncommon two-word verb.

John Burgess said...

I suspect either mischief-making or laziness at The Times. The headline writer was not pressed for space, often the (more or less) valid for strange word choices.

Anonymous said...

For those suggesting mischief, laziness or embarrassment at the NYT, I can assure you that no average American would interpret this as anything other than what was meant. So it works just fine for its intended audience.

biochemist said...

In a sporting context: I have heard - very occasionally - a (BrE) commentator saying something like 'she bested her current record'. So 'to best oneself' could be a feasible alternative here, although I think it usually refers to combat, where one's enemy is 'bested' or vanquished.

Mike Cliffson said...

Br E , b 1950, midlands
-Topand tail for babies , yes, stillused , in my youth considered a little hmm for polite company, more women together?/informal?/familyonly ? language
NB babies-either sex- and smalls had/have tailends.
-to top and tail veg- often given the chore
-2 kids sharing one narrow bed with head by feet and viceversa I remember
as top TO tail

Also Remember , (about the same register as "keep your 'and on your ha'penny", see youtube) a shared ladies exmusicalhall song of raffish connotation, but you'd never be able to prove it, except for th way they sang it,:
"Just a liittle bit off the top
will do, for me, ( x2)
Saw /other verbs me off an inch or two
and I'll tell you when/where to stop
a little bit off the top"

I would wonder exactly what , but not in general, what "topping himself" meant, and evidently, be wrong.
-pub Barmen friend of mine, 60s, thrown by a Scot asking for a "bo'ol to'od"-
he meant an open bottle of beer, to be drunk at the bar from the bottle , no glass: a "bottle topped" This is also a very USA custom- what's it called stateside?

Albert Welch said...

Massachusetts age 25-

I had no trouble with that headline.

Until I read the article I'd have no clue as to which stat it referred, but it's clear he set some sort of personal best.

Note of course that this is sports lingo, AND headlinese both of which are notoriously slangy.

One of my favorites in that regard was a local paper's "No-No is No Go for Nomo" referring to then Red Sox pitcher Hideo Nomo allowing only one hit in a win against the Toronto Blue Jays May 2001.

A more transparent headline would have been "Lin scores career high"

I haven't looked at your book besides its title but I am amused, bemused and embarrassed to have initially misread antonyms as autonyms, another fascinating area, albeit a less broad one.