"Over the Top" Phrase Origin

Soldiers in a World War 1 Tench


Jeff J Mitchell / Staff / Getty Images

Modern Meaning

Today, the idiomatic phrase "over the top" or "going over the top" is used to describe someone making an effort that is excessive or more than is required to accomplish a task. Sometimes the phrase is used to describe an action that is judged to be fool-hearty or needlessly dangerous. But it is a peculiar phrase to have such a meaning, and you might well wonder where the idiom came from, and how it came to have the popular meaning it now holds. 

Origin of the Idiom

The first documented instance of the term being used was from World War I when it was used by British troops to describe the moment when they emerged from trenches and charged out over open land to attack the enemy. Soldiers did not look forward this moment, and certainly many of them must have regarded it as foolhardy and dangerous. And example comes from a 1916 edition of "War Illustrated":

Some fellows asked our captain when we were going over the top.

It's reasonable to assume that returning veterans may have kept using the phrase when they returned home from war, and it's likely that at this point it became a way of describing civilian actions regarded as foolhardy or dangerous, or in some cases just comically outrageous. 

Continued Usage of the Phrase

A 1935 edition of Letters, by Lincoln Steffers, has this passage:

I had come to regard the New Capitalism as an experiment till, in 1929, the whole thing went over the top and slid down to an utter collapse.

The phrase is now so common that it has received its abbreviated acronym: OTT, which is widely understood to mean "over the top," and is now used to mean any action viewed as outrageous or extreme. 

But a parent who humorously describes his toddler's tantrum as being "over the top" probably has no idea that it was first spoken by a World War I soldier as he prepared to leap from a muddy trench into a bloody battle from which he might not return.