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My parents use the term “top brick off the chimney” for my children sometimes, implying they get the best of what is on offer. For example, the best cut of meat.

None of us quite know what it exactly means or its origin. Both my parents heard it as children in the 1950's / 1960's in New Zealand so I imagine it has an English origin. I'd be grateful if you could tell me any information about when and where it was first used and how its meaning developed over time.

  • 11
    I've never heard the expression here in the US. – Hot Licks Aug 31 '16 at 23:30
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    Personally if someone told me they are giving me the "top brick off the chimney" then I would take it as an insult to my intelligence that I am a person that is not aware that all of those bricks are the same and at some point I must have shown a childlike tantrum to acquire something irrelevant or got into a pissing contest. Here, let me get the top brick off the chimney for you. One thing to remember is that the top brick is the one with the most bird doo-doo. – MonkeyZeus Sep 1 '16 at 13:33
19

A search of the New Zealand Papers Past newspaper database yields exactly one match for the phrase in question. From The [Nelson] Colonist (July 27, 1888):

A London paper says the Queen is so fond of Prince Henry of Battenberg, that if he wanted the top brick off the chimney, she would have it displaced and gilded for presentation to him.

So New Zealanders were exposed to the term a long time ago, but whether they have been using the expression steadily ever since is a a matter for conjecture.

A Google Books search turns up two even earlier matches for the term. From Arthur Ogilvy, "A Cure for the Blues," in Once a Week (September 21, 1867):

Of course we are exacting, and to require an entertainment at once agreeable, intellectual, and economical, fair accommodation being superadded, and that too when London is at its hottest and emptiest, may seem little more reasonable than the infantine cry for "the top brick off the chimney;" but remembering the character of the Promenade Concerts in past years, we feel that, exorbitant as our demands may appear, they have more than a chance of being satisfied and resign ourself to eighteen-penny-worth of cab with a reasonable prospect of getting all that we want at Covent Garden.

(This instance is also cited in Laurel's answer.)

And from Author and Actress, serialized in The St. James Magazine (April 1870):

Your younger son, too, not only has limited means, but he has often very queer notions of poverty. Destitution with him simply means that he has expensive tastes which he cannot gratify ; that, in nursery language, he wants the moon or the top brick off the chimney. You offer the spoilt child metaphorical bread and marmalade, and he throws it aside in a pet. Plum cake has palled on his too refined palate; his longing can only be gratified in seventh heaven.

These early examples have in common their association of the desire for this hard-to-satisfy request with the whim of a child. This is consistent with the interpretation that Eric Partridge & Paul Beale, A Dictionary of Slang & Unconventional English, eighth edition (1984)—also cited in Josh61's answer—gives of the phrase:

top brick off the chimney. Term used to describe the acme of generosity, with implication that foolish spoiling, or detriment to the donor may result, as in 'his parents'd give that boy the ...', or 'she's that soft-hearted, she'd give you ...': heard by me only in early 1980s but prob. in use much earlier. {P[aul] B[eale]}


A search of the National Library of Australia Trove newspaper database turns up a two other matches for "the top brick off the chimney" from the 1880s. From "Legislative Council: ... Wednesday, August 18," in The [Perth] West Australian (August 20, 1880):

Mr. CROWTHER ... Many of those representatives, and especially members coming from the country, attend here at great personal inconvenience and some expense, in order to do what they believe is best in the interests of the colony. And this is how they are treated by the representatives of the Government. From the very opening of the session—or at any rate from the first day I have been in attendance—the conduct of those hon. gentlemen has been suggestive of the conduct of so many spoilt children. They want the "top brick off the chimney," and if they do not get what they want, they go into sulks and show off their tantrums, leaving us to do the best we can. Thank goodness, we can do very well without them,—even if they never came back at all. (Laughter.)

And from Charles Garvice, "Wild Margaret," serialized in the Moruya [New South Wales] Times and South Coast Journal (November 14, 1888):

There was a pause. She drank some of the stout, for her lips felt dry, then she said, more to herself than him, —

'Yes, he's far too good. Poor Blair. Why, the very first diamonds I ever had he gave me.

He'd have given me the top brick off the chimney if I'd ask for it. You won't believe it, because you don't believe anything, Mr. Ambrose, but I tell you I'd do anything for Lord Blair. I never told you when I first met him?'

In these instances, too, there is something capricious and childlike in the focus on "the top brick off the chimney" as a thing to be desired.

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The Concise Thesaurus of Traditional English Metaphors, by Dick Wilkinson, gives this definition:

He would give him/her the top brick off the chimney! [w & midEng]. Of a father who spoils his child; the very limits of generosity.

It seems to have originated in England and the earliest use of the phrase I found is "A Cure for the Blues" by Arthur Ogilvey, 1867:

...may seem little more reasonable than the infantine cry for "the top brick off the chimney...

A more modern equivalent would be "give them the moon".

7

From the Dictionary of Slang and Unconventional English (Eric Patridge )

Top brick off the chimney:

  • Term used to describe the acme of generosity, with implication that foolish spoiling or detriment to the donor may result, as in "his parents'd give the boy the..., she is that soft-hearted she would give you..." Heard by me in the early '60s but probably in use much earlier. (P.B)

The expression appears to have been used well before the '50s. The following extract is from the St.James's Magazine of 1870 and shows clearly the meaning and usage of the expression:

  • Destitution with him simply means that he has expensive tastes which he cannot gratify ; that, in nursery language, he wants the moon or the top brick off the chimney. You offer the spoilt child metaphorical bread and marmalade, and he throws ...
2

The top brick of the chimney is used in Anthony Trollpe's Phinneas Finn (1869) and is the heading of chapter LVII having been used in the previous chapter "There are moments in which we try to give a child any brick on the chimney top for which it may whimper".

0

My mother, whose father was from New Zealand (b. 1891), used the expression often as in, "to give him the top brick off the chimney." It is a superlative token of generosity.

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I did a little research and I can't say for certain that this is the reason the phrase came to be, but it's worth noting that removing the top brick from the chimney is a pretty bad idea.

eFireplaceStore has a chimney cap buyer's guide that has a whole list of benefits to owning a chimney cap, including:

  • It keeps animals out
  • It prevents downdrafts that can carry smoke into the house
  • It keeps sparks from floating up the chimney and igniting the roof
  • It keeps water out

Having a brick or two missing would leave an opening through which wind and animals could enter and sparks could exit, and it if were a top brick (or there were a hurricane), water could be a problem too.

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    Yes, I'm not familiar with the phrase, but to me it carries a suggestion that the top brick off the chimney is a particularly indulgent gift because intrinsically it's exactly the same as any other brick. But taking it down is difficult (it's high up) and causes problems (you're starting to dismantle your house). – Steve Jessop Sep 1 '16 at 13:24

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