The phrase originates in education, specifically the custom of indicating every correct answer in an examination with a mark. Hence, “full marks” would be getting everything right. The phrase appears as early as 1852, according to the OED, with a figurative use in 1889: “I was once fifteen hours on the road… By rail I have done it in an hour and three-quarters. Full marks for steam, it may be thought…”
Though “full marks” shows up in an anonymous 1924 New York Times movie review — “the film version of ‘Monsleur Beaucaire’ is entitled to full marks for the splendor of the settings and the extraordinary beauty of the costimes” — I ascribe that to an Anglophile reviewer. Or, at least, the phrase fell out of favor after that and became unfamiliar here. In the U.S., “marks” is a more general term: one can talk of getting good or not-so-good marks, meaning grades. And I judge the modern American equivalent of “full marks” to be “full credit.”
When I wrote about it in 2019, I categorized “full marks” as “On the Radar.” But it has started to get more popular here. Here’s the Ngram Viewer chart.
It actually showed up a week ago in the Times (as I write), from Bret Stephens in an exchange with fellow columnist Gail Collins: “[President Biden has] done a much better job standing up for Ukraine than I had expected he might, and I’ll give him and his national-security team full marks for that.”
Expect to see it pretty widely, pretty soon.
2 thoughts on ““Full marks””
Something wrong with your first sentence, Ben (putting indicating). I wonder whether “full marks” is now dated in the UK, along with “top marks”.
“Top of the form” surely is. It was the title of a UK quiz show, cancelled in 1986: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Top_of_the_Form_(quiz_show)
That Wiki says: ‘The producer, Graham Frost, was reported to have said it had been cancelled because the competitive nature of the show jarred with modern educational philosophy’.
I’ll leave it to others to comment on the general effects of this educational change, but it does seem to have affected spoken (British) English. One aspect relevant to this blog being the decline of the subjunctive in the UK, whereas it seems to be ticking along nicely in the USA.