meaning and origin of the phrase ‘over the top’


The following photograph, caption and comment are from Going “Over the Top” with the Soldiers at Camp Upton, published in Popular Science Monthly (New York) of June 1918:

over the top - Popular Science Monthly - June 1918

Uncle Sam’s embryo soldiers obey the call to go “over the top” with all the will in the world—fit for a fight or a frolic as fate may dictate when they get “there”

The accompanying photograph shows what the camera registered when the photographer took a snapshot of soldiers at Camp Upton while they were going “over the top ―which is only one feature of the physical training which the Camp Upton men undergo in preparation for the fighting “over there.” Punching a bag with a bayonet to accustom the soldier to hand-to-hand struggles, foot races, boxing matches and other sports make up their life in camp.



The phrase over the top means beyond the bounds of what is expected, usual, normal or appropriate. It originated as an expression meaning over the parapet of a trench and into battle during the First World War.

The American author, actor, screenwriter and film producer Arthur Guy Empey (1883-1963), who volunteered in the British army in 1915, published an account of his war experiences, titled “Over the Top” by an American soldier who went (New York, 1917). In its appendix, Tommy’s dictionary of the trenches, Empey thus defined over the top:

A famous phrase of the trenches. It is generally the order for the men to charge the German lines. Nearly always it is accompanied by the Jonah wish, “With the best o’ luck and give them hell.”

A synonymous expression was over the bags. The Evening Express (Aberdeen, Scotland) of Monday 9th October 1916 published the following:

“Going Over the Bags.”

The Rev. F. J. Rae gave an address at the afternoon service in Beechgrove U.F. Church, Aberdeen, yesterday, on impressions made on his mind by experiences at the front. At the outset he gave several pictures of what the men had to face, first in an attack “going over the bags,” and under shell fire during a bombardment.

The early figurative uses of over the top stemmed from the military sense and referred to demonstrations of fighting spirit. For example, The Manchester Guardian (Lancashire) of Wednesday 12th March 1919 reported that the day before, at the opening of the annual assembly of National Church Councils of the Evangelical Free Churches, in Sheffield, Dr. Guttery declared in his presidential address

that this was no day for a policy of caution. The Church, in fact, must go “over the top” and dare all things.

Likewise, The Courier (Dundee, Scotland) of Saturday 7th June 1919 had:

When They Hear The Whistles Blow.

An interesting development has occurred in connection with the Rosyth rent agitation.
The citizens of the Garden City have now resolved to refuse payment of house rents, and practically all the inhabitants have withdrawn the mandate from the cashiers’ department at the dockyard whereby the weekly rent could be deducted from the wages of the men.
At a crowded meeting of women held last night street captains were appointed to enforce the decision of the ratepayers not to pay any further rent until a reduction was made. It was stated that one or more women would be appointed captains for each street, and whenever the rent collector called, which he was expected to do next week, the householder was to proceed without delay to the captain appointed, who would be provided with a whistle. The whistle would then be blown, and all the women in the houses were to turn out and escort the collector out of the village.

The following article from The Leeds Mercury (Yorkshire) of Thursday 23rd September 1920 seems to show the transition to the sense beyond the bounds of what is usual, expected:

Theatre Chocolates.

Several of our West End theatres have gone “over the top” in their fight for permission to sell chocolates and cigarettes after eight o’clock. Peaceful propaganda in the form of applications to authority having failed, they have gone in for direct action. The West End Managers’ Association has taken counsel’s opinion, and it having been found that D.O.R.A.*, that grim lady, is a back number, advised its members to act accordingly. D.O.R.A. has always shown such wonderful come-back capabilities that it will be interesting to watch events. I am inclined to think, too, that there will be a reprisal movement amongst outside retailers.

(* D.O.R.A.: Acronym from the initial letters of Defence of the Realm Acts, a series of Acts of Parliament passed between 1914 and 1916, giving the British government a wide range of emergency powers during the First World War. In 1920, the Emergency Powers Act and the Restoration of Order in Ireland Act re-enacted many of the regulations of the Defence of the Realm Acts, and were referred to more loosely as D.O.R.A.)

In American English, over the top is also used in the positive sense exceeding the assigned quota or goal. The following is from the Liverpool Post & Mercury (Lancashire) of Tuesday 4th December 1917:


Ottawa, Sunday.—Canada’s Victory Loan of £30,000,000 has been more than doubly subscribed. Commenting on the fact, Sir Thomas White, Minister of Finance, says:—
“Overwhelming success of the Victory Loan is a great national triumph for the Canadian people. While it will be a week or more before the final returns are available, we shall not be surprised if the aggregate cash subscriptions amount to £70,000,000 from 500,000 subscribers. Canada certainly has ‘gone over the top.’”—Reuter.

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