“Full marks”

Note British “odour” spelling

This post marks a Not One-Off Britishisms first. I don’t believe it’s ever previously happened that, while researching American use of a British word or phrase, I came upon an example written by me. The phrase is “full marks.” Merriam-Webster’s online dictionary has these definitions and examples:

1 chiefly British : the highest possible grade on an exam or in a course. “She got full marks for the coursework”… — Lancashire Telegraph

2 chiefly British : due credit or commendation. “Regarding the question of aircraft nomenclature, my pet peeve is commercial airline aircraft. I give the Europeans full marks in this department: Comets, Caravelles and Concordes are above reproach.”— John Ryan

There’s a nice used of the term, sort of half-literal and half-metaphorical, in E.M Forster’s A Room with a View:

Screen Shot 2019-10-02 at 3.40.27 PM

In my many years as a student and teacher, starting in 1960, I don’t believe I’ve ever encountered Merriam-Webster’s first meaning. The American equivalent would be “got 100” or “got straight As” or “aced it.” But I found that in years past, it was used here. This is from a 1908 New York Times article about a graduation ceremony at a school “for Immigrant Children”:

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The literal meaning fell out of favor in American education but the figurative use shows up in the prose of mid-20th century belle-lettristic sorts, including Times writers like Orville Prescott, Arthur Krock, and Brooks Atkinson, who in a 1947 pan of a Molnar play wrote of the author, “Possibly he should be given full marks for attempting a sublime theme.”

But the phrase was used considerably more commonly in Britain, especially in the ’30s through the ’60s, as this Google Ngram Viewer graph shows. (Reliable data for Google Ngram Viewer only goes up to 2000.)

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Nowadays, the metaphorical meaning pops up quite a lot in the U.S., including two in sports contexts in just the past few days: The (American) football website Fansided on October 1: “If [Josh] Rosen ever becomes a legitimate starter in the NFL, full marks to him.” And ESPN’s National Hockey League preview on September 30: “Full marks to Niklas Hjalmarsson and Brad Richardson” of the Arizona Coyotes.

There have been twenty-one uses in the Times since 2012, including:

  • Recap of the TV series Outlander: “Full marks to Sam Heughan and Caitriona Balfe for doing a scene on actual horseback instead of on barrels with hair.”
  • Theater critic Charles Isherwood: “I’d grant [playwright Adititi] Kapil full marks for invention.”
  • Sports column quoting Ron Katz, the chairman of the Institute of Sports Law and Ethics at Santa Clara University, on a National Football League report on “deflate-gate”: “I thought the N.F.L. was going to brush it under the carpet. I give them full marks for coming out with this report.
  • Theater critic Ben Brantley in a review of The King and I: “give full marks to the first-rate Ruthie Ann Miles”

And including an article about comma use listing various mistakes and saying that if the reader spotted them, “give yourself full marks.” The author, I was interested to note, was Ben Yagoda.

9 thoughts on ““Full marks”

  1. Full marks is a common-or-garden term over here. Until now, I would have presumed it was the same on both sides of the Atlantic, but I’ve learned something new today!

  2. Be interesting to speculate why it’s FULL marks, not “top” marks … which is more in keeping with getting 100/100 (i.e. “top”) in an exam ?????

  3. Now, if you’re finding Yagoda citations for lots of other NOOBs, you’re in an episode of The Twilight Zone. I just came upon a Yagoda quote when I looked up Virginia Heffernan on Wikipedia. I may check out her Internet book.

    Apparently, I have a lot to look forward to in Stranger Things. I’m on episode 1, season 1. I feel like such a NOOBie.

    Enjoy impeachment!

    Andrew Feinberg 333 E. 57th St., Apt 5A New York, NY 10022 212-755-8756 212-755-7634 (fax) 917-734-7917 (cel)


  4. The only variation on ‘full marks’, which I can think of, is ‘half marks’. A ‘no-mark’ being, according to the OED, an unimportant, unsuccessful, or worthless person.

  5. Pingback: “Full marks”
  6. That Merriam-Webster’s definition #1 caught my attention: ‘chiefly British : the highest possible grade on an exam or in a course’.

    As an older Brit, I would have written in, on: ‘the highest possible grade in an exam or on a course’.

    The difference doesn’t bother me, compared to the chaotic prepositions we hear every day; at least there seems to be a system behind this US convention/preference. I just can’t see what that system is, or guess how it could have evolved.

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