The other day, someone mentioned this phrase as a NOOB. I checked and saw I had not yet covered it. The reason, I realized, is that at this point it’s so common in the U.S. that I don’t really think of it as a British in origin. (“The tone of the show, in what I have seen, is over the top “– New York Times opinion writer Kara Swisher, on the upcoming TV series Super Pumped, yesterday.)
But a Britishism it is. The OED labels the phrase “chiefly British” and defines it as: “To an excessive or exaggerated degree; beyond reasonable or acceptable limits; too far.” The OED also notes another, earlier meaning of “over the top,” stemming from World War I trench warfare: to literally climb over the top of a trench or parapet and go into battle. This took off in America, generating (as listed in the Library of Congress) no fewer than six popular songs called “Over the Top,” plus this one:
The phrase seems to have taken on a positive figurative meaning, akin to “going all out,” as seen in this item from a 1918 issue of The Rotarian:
The OED‘s first citation for the phrase with the “excessive” meaning is in a 1935 letter by the American writer Lincoln Steffens: “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.” But I take that as an outlier — a fresh metaphor on Steffens’s part, not his use of a phrase that was in currency. The first definite example I’m aware of comes from a 1965 novel called The Concrete Kimono (cited in Green’s Dictionary of Slang): “I seem to recall your ‘over the top’ waistcoats.” The quotation marks suggest unfamiliarity and recency.
By 1982, the phrase was popular enough in Britain to spawn an acronym. From The Sloane Ranger Handbook: “OTT adj. Over the top—outrageous. Usually ‘absolutely’ or ‘totally OTT’.”
It’s difficult to use Ngram Viewer and the other databases I normally consult to track the progress of this phrase and its relative frequency of use in Britain and the U.S. That’s because searches for “over the top” yield a great deal of noise: references to climbing over the top of a hill, sprinkling sugar over the top of a cake, and so on. Lynne Murphy suggested slipping an intensifier before the phrase; taking a cue from the Sloane Rangers and searching for “totally over the top” in Ngram Viewer worked nicely:
It’s a classic NOOB graph. In fact, the only thing that surprises me is that it shows U.S. use as only about half of that in Britain.