"Over the Top" Phrase Origin

Hooded British soldiers going over the top to charge a German trench in WWI

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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 dramatic, foolhardy, 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 be understood today.

Origin of the Idiom

The first documented instance of using the term is from World War I, when it was used by British troops to describe the moment they emerged from the trenches to charge out over open land and attack the enemy. Soldiers did not look forward to this moment, and certainly many of them regarded it as a significant risk of life and limb. Perhaps the earliest example in print comes from "The War Illustrated" in 1916:

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

Assuming that returning veterans may have kept using the phrase when they returned home from war is reasonable. It's also likely that at this point it became a way to describe civilian actions as reckless and perilous, or perhaps overdone, exaggerated, or comically outrageous. 

Continued Usage

Another early example in print comes from "The Letters of Lincoln Steffens" in 1938:

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 its abbreviated acronym, OTT, is widely understood to describe any action that is outrageous or extreme. A parent humorously describing their toddler's tantrum as OTT probably has no idea that it was first spoken by a World War I soldier preparing to leap from a muddy foxhole into a bloody battle from which he might never return.

Resources and Further Reading

  • The War Illustrated, 9 Sept. 1916, p. 80.
  • Steffens, Lincoln. The Letters of Lincoln Steffens. Edited by Granville Hicks and Ella Winter, Harcourt, Brace & Co., 1938.