Brownie Points

What are brownie points? The answer involves military slang, wartime food rationing, and the Girl Scouts.

“You might earn some brownie points if you shovel snow for your next-door neighbor!”

“Turning in your report early will get you some brownie points for sure.”

No, this doesn’t mean that someone will bake you a gooey chocolate confection if you rack up enough points. Nor does it mean that a Scottish household fairy will magically milk your cows and sweep your barn during the night.

The Oxford English Dictionary defines a brownie point as “a notional credit for an achievement; favour in the eyes of another, esp. gained by sycophantic or servile behaviour.” This definition emphasizes the negative connotation of pandering to someone to win their favor, but “brownie points” can also simply mean imaginary credit for doing a good deed or praise for a performing a service for someone.

Brown Nosing

The OED indicates that the term “brownie point” may be most closely tied to the term “brown nose,” which similarly means to ingratiate oneself with someone by being excessively attentive or eager to help. “Brown nosing” originated as military slang and is documented as early as 1938. The general notion was similar to many other obscenities—the brown noser was kissing someone’s backside. You can guess where the brown came from.

Brownie Badges

J.E. Lighter’s Random House Historical Dictionary of American Slang states that “brownie points” originated from a rewards system used by the Brownies tier of the Girl Guides (UK)/Girl Scouts (USA) program. While “brown nose” is a more likely precursor to “brownie points,” the term surely owes some of its popularity to the founder of international scouting.

Stained glass window of Robert Baden-Powell
A stained glass window in Sussex dedicated to Lord Robert Baden-Powell, the founder of the international scouting movement.
Image by Cnbrb, CCO 1.0 via Wikimedia Commons.

In 1914, Lord Robert Baden-Powell organized the youngest age group of girls in the Girl Guides program and called them the Rosebuds. The group was run first by his sister, Agnes, and later by his wife, Olave. After hearing that the 8-to-11-year-olds in the Rosebuds group disliked the name, Lord Baden-Powell renamed them Brownies after an 1870 story called “The Brownies” by Juliana Horatia Ewing.

Brownies were popular in children’s literature at the time the Brownie Girl Guides were founded. In “The Brownies,” two children named Tommy and Betty learn that it’s better to be helpful and hardworking like brownies rather than lazy like boggarts. Ewing’s tale draws upon brownies in English and Scottish folklore, where they are described as a kind of fairy that dwelt in homes and awoke at night to clean, do chores, and sometimes pull light-hearted pranks on lazy servants. They were rewarded with a bit of cream and bread. Boggarts, on the other hand, were malevolent household spirits that stir up mischief, make things disappear, and cause milk to sour. A brownie could turn into a boggart if it the household occupants offended it.

Brownies reading a book. Illustration from The Palmer Cox Brownie Primer, a children’s reader from 1906.
Image via Wikimedia Commons.

True to their namesake, Girl Guides/Scouts in the Brownies section (now encompassing ages 7–11) are encouraged to be kind and helpful in their communities. Brownies receive badges as a reward for achieving various interest-related and scouting-related tasks or for doing good deeds. The term “Brownie points” with a capital B has been associated with Girl Scout achievement badges. However, there has never necessarily been a “point system” to earn badges in Brownies or to advance up the ranks in the Girl Scout organization, and the term is not used within the organization.

The Brownie Exchange

As another theory, During World War II, citizens were given ration points in various colors that could be exchanged for food, based on availability. Red and brown points were used to buy meat and fats, while blue points purchased canned and bottled foods. It’s easy to see how “brown points” could have morphed into “brownie points.”

Other theories as to the origin of “brownie points” abound:

  • In the 1930s, brown vouchers called “brownies” were awarded to delivery boys who carried the Saturday Evening Post, Ladies Home Journal, and Country Gentleman, which they could exchange for items from a catalog.
  • In the late 1800s and early 1900s, G. R. Brown, general superintendent of the Fall Brook Railway in New York and Pennsylvania, gave “brownie points” as a system of merits and demerits. This was copied by other railways, but it was mainly used as a term for negative actions by employees.
  • A camera club started in 1900 taught children how to use the Brownie box camera—but with no system of points in sight, this seems like an unlikely origin.

With the most likely origin stemming from a reference to excrement, it’s no wonder that we’ve come up with many other explanations for “brownie points”—but a variation on “brown-nosing” does seem to make the most sense.

Initial Usage

Given all of this background, it’s surprising that the term “brownie points” didn’t come into existence earlier in the twentieth century.

A 1944 book of American Speech recorded “brownie points” as a schoolyard taunt for goody-two shoes students who answered all the teacher’s questions.

The first specific documented use was in 1951 in the Los Angeles Times. In an article called “Brownie Points—The New Measure of a Husband,” Miles Marvin wrote of brownie points as a means of earning favor with his wife. He goes to great lengths to explain the unfamiliar new term:

I first heard about them [brownie points] when the chap standing next to me in the elevator pulled a letter from his pocket, looked at it in dismay and muttered “More lost brownie points.”

Figuring him for an eccentric, I forgot about them until that evening when one of the boys looked soulfully into the foam brimming his glass and said solemnly:

“I should have been home two hours ago . . . I’ll never catch up on my brownie points.”

Brownie points! What esoteric cult was this that immersed men in pixie mathematics?

“You don’t know about brownie points? 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.”

Miles didn’t exactly know where it came from, either, but his article captured an unfortunate transactional dynamic between wives and husbands. A respectable husband in Miles’s day was supposed to remember birthdays and anniversaries, remember to complete tasks his wife had asked him to do, and get home on time—and it seems like his friend could never get ahead.

Since then, brownie points have typically been used in a more positive light, as an imaginary reward for good deeds rather than a dauntingly high bar to achieve or a pejorative term. Probably because they remind us of chocolate.

Sources

Miles, Marvin. “Brownie Points—The New Measure of a Husband.” Los Angeles Times. March 15, 1951, p. 41.

O’Conner, Patricia, and Kellerman, Stewart. “Brownie Points and Brown-Nosing.” Grammarphobia, March 12, 2018. https://www.grammarphobia.com/blog/2018/03/brownie-points.html.

Oxford English Dictionary. “brownie point.” oed.com.

Rossen, Jake. “Where Did the Term Brownie Points Come From?” Mental Floss, August 19, 2019. https://www.mentalfloss.com/article/587569/brownie-points-term-origin.

Schumm, Laura. “Food Rationing in Wartime America.” History.com, August 31, 2018. https://www.history.com/news/food-rationing-in-wartime-america.

Simpson, Jacqueline, and Roud, Stephen. “brownie.” A Dictionary of English Folklore. Oxford University Press, 2000.

The Phrase Finder. “Brownie points.” https://www.phrases.org.uk/meanings/brownie-points.html.

Upton, Emily. “The Origin of the Term ‘Brownie Points.’” Today I Found Out, May 6, 2014. http://www.todayifoundout.com/index.php/2014/05/origin-term-brownie-points/.

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