This term is American, but of unknown origin, referring to a vague system of merit points used to curry favor with some authority. Evidence indicates that it was part of military slang during the WWII-Korean War era,1 but the earliest known use in print is from the Los Angeles Times of 15 March 1951:
You don’t know about brownie points? All my buddies keep score. In fact every married male should know about ‘em. 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.2
This citation indicates that it comes from the sense of brownie meaning an elf or fairy. So earning brownie points would be a way to curry favor with the spirits. But this is far from certain.
Other possible explanations include that brownie point is a reference to the junior branch of the Girl Scouts, the Brownies. This would also explain the soldier slang; one can easily see soldiers using the term from the Girl Scouts to mock army procedures and orders. The earliest known use of brownie point in the context of the Girl Scouts is from the Modesto Bee and News-Herald of 17 June 1952:
Mrs. Rose presented a Brownie bracelet to Linda Hickle, first prize winner in a Brownie point contest.3
Alternatively, some less likely suggestions include that it goes back to WWII food rationing, where brown points could be accumulated to purchase meats and fats. Going back a bit further, in the 1930s the Curtis Publishing Company, publishers of the Saturday Evening Post, awarded green and brown vouchers, known as brownies to its delivery boys, although there is no evidence of anyone calling these brownie points. Or it could be a reference to brown nosing, a vulgar term for currying favor. Finally, and least likely, it could have originated in railroad slang. George Brown of the Fall Brook Railway invented a system of demerits for his employees at the end of the 19th century. By 1942, these demerits were known as brownie points. But since a demerit is the opposite of the general sense, this seems unlikely. More likely is that the railroad slang term was altered and adopted from the more general one and conflated with Brown’s system of demerits.4
1Historical Dictionary of American Slang, v. 1, A-G, edited by Jonathan Lighter (New York: Random House, 1994), 276.
2Benjamin Zimmer, “Brownie Points,” American Dialect Society Mailing List, 20 Mar 2005.
3”Brownie Troop Gives Party for Mothers,” Modesto Bee and News-Herald (Modesto, CA), 17 June 1952, 6.
4Michael Quinion, “Brownie Points,” World Wide Words, 26 Mar 2005, accessed 31 Dec 2008 <http://www.worldwidewords.org/qa/qa-bro3.htm>.
Copyright 1997-2016, by David Wilton