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The OED has this to say about "brownie points."

Brownie point n. [probably a development < brown-nose n. at brown adj. Special uses 2, but popularly associated with 2 and hence frequently spelled with capital initial] colloq. (orig. U.S.)

a notional credit for an achievement; favour in the eyes of another, esp. gained by sycophantic or servile behaviour.

The sense 2 referenced in the etymology note (and boldened for emphasis) refers to "brownie" meaning:

[ < the colour of their uniform.] A member of the junior section of the organization known as the ‘Girl Guides’. Also attributive.

But Green's Dictionary of Slang, while listing the etymology as "unknown," offers an alternative theory:

recent research suggests that its origin may also lie in wartime American food rationing, in which ration points in various colours were required to make food purchases: red and brown ones, for example, referred to meats and fats. There are many references in wartime newspapers to ‘brown points’.

Indeed, it is not hard to find many uses of the term "brown points" in this fashion.

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To confuse things just a bit further, I noticed this reference to "brownie point" from the 19th century, far before other attestations of "brownie point" in GDoS and the OED, which attest it in the 1950s and 60s.

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Questions:

  1. Does "brownie point" indeed derive from "brown point" as suggested by Green? Alternatively, is there evidence to back the theories related to "brown-nosing" or girl scouts?

  2. Does the 1896 reference to "to the brownie point" have any relation to "brownie points" as known today, or is it an unrelated turn of phrase?

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    I've always assumed it came from the Girl Scouts -- scoring points to win a badge or some sort of rank advancement. Was indeed a popular term among kids in the 50s and 60s, and the use never seemed inconsistent with such an origin. – Hot Licks Sep 23 '18 at 21:55
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    The same instance cited in the December 19, 1896, Elmira [New York] Star-Gazette can be viewed (with some variation in the wording of nearby text) through the Library of Congress's Chronicling America newspaper database (with no paywall) in the December 20, 1896, Norfolk, [Virginia] Virginian (first column, under the subhead "The Christmas Face"). – Sven Yargs Sep 24 '18 at 16:48
  • Rather than the junior branch of the Girl Guides (Girl Scouts) being named from the colour of their uniforms I always thought that they were named for the mythical brownies who are small, helpful fairy folk and that the colour of the uniform reflected the name. – BoldBen Sep 23 at 22:03
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The origin of 'brownie points'

According to J.E. Lighter, Random House Historical Dictionary of American Slang (1994) "brownie points" originated from a grading or rewards system used by the Brownies subdivision of the Girl Scouts of America, but owed some of its popularity to the influence of the pejorative term "brown-nose":

brownie point n. {from the system used for advancement by the Brownies of the Girl Scouts of America; but strongly influenced by BROWN-NOSE [dated to 1938 and defined as "to curry favor (from) in an obsequious way; to toady (to)"—originally a military term "of scatological inspiration but not now considered vulgar"]} a credit toward advancement or good standing, esp. when gained by servility, opportunism, or the like. [Earliest cited occurrence as a slang term:] 1944–53 in MSU Folklore GF2.1: Army Jargon 29: Blew his stack. Brownie points.


The mysterious 1896 allusion to "brownie points'

The rest of my response focuses on your second question:

Does the 1896 reference to "to the brownie point" have any relation to "brownie points" as known today, or is it an unrelated turn of phrase?

The answer, I think, is that the 1896 instance is completely unrelated to the later concept of "brownie points." In fact, the expression in the 1896 instance—"First, it [a Christmas face] is earnest, oh, so earnest—to the brownie point, in fact"—seems to focus on a connection not between brownie and point, but between brownie and earnest. A newspaper item from three years earlier indicates a similar connection. From "Cordage Trust Visitors: An Illustration of the Difference Between Riding Men and Chappies," in the [New York] Sun (May 7, 1893):

The chappies talked the most, and had lost the least. The other men, the riding and athletic-looking men, were less excited, less voluble, heavier loosers, but all equally unused to their surroundings. Some of the confidences which were exchanged with as frank disregard of the curious outside listeners as if the speakers were safe on a veranda of a country club house, disclosed some new roads to Wall street. Two young men of the chappie order, with the earnest, serious faces of brownies, were standing on the lower steps of the entrance, talking so that even he who ran must hear.

But what does the "earnest face of a brownie" refer to? A search through multiple slang dictionaries from the period 1970–1920 turns up only one entry for brownie—in reference to a nautical term for a polar bear. Moreover, the brownie dessert seems to have got its name in 1896, the Brownie camera first appeared in 1900, and the Girl Scout order known as Brownies were organized in 1914 (originally under the name "Rosebuds"). It seems to me that the most likely sense of brownie here is to the sometimes mischievous but often hard-working and helpful sprites that, in Scottish folklore, have many of the attributes of the elves in the fairy tale "The Shoemaker and the Elves."

In the late 1800s, brownies were a familiar character in people's imaginations, thanks to a series of extremely popular children's books by Palmer Cox, who describes them in The Brownies at Home (1887) as follows:

BROWNIES, like fairies and goblins, are imaginary little sprites, who are supposed to delight in harmless pranks and helpful deeds. They work and sport while weary households sleep, and never allow themselves to be seen by mortal eyes.

In that same book, in a poem titled "The Brownies' Good Work," Cox describes how the brownies harvest the crops of a farmer, who had been badly injured while saving some children from a runaway team of horses. The farmer thinks that his neighbors had done the work while he slept, and the poem ends on this note:

But when he thanked them [his neighbors] for their aid, / And hoped they yet might be repaid / For acting such a friendly part, / His words appeared to pierce each heart; / For well they knew that other hands / Than theirs had laid his grain in bands, / That other backs had bent in toil / To save the products of the soil. / And then they felt as such folks will / Who fail to nobly act, until / More earnest helpers, stepping in, / Do all the praise and honor win.

The accompanying illustrations show the industrious brownies engaged in various tasks, sometimes smiling but often frowning or expressing surprise as their efforts sometimes go awry. Their faces are highly expressive and, indeed, earnest. In The Brownies at Home (1891/1893), Cox emphasizes the sincerity of which brownies are capable, in connection with writing Valentine's Day love letters on behalf of unsuspecting humans:

A Brownie has a level head, / Although perhaps not college-bred, / And knows just when to stop and start, / Or round a phrase to catch the heart; / And though sarcastic flings at men / They may indulge in now and then, / The earnest, active Brownie mind / To thoughts of love is more inclined; / So hearts and arrows, in the main, / The Brownies' missives did contain.

And again in "The Brownies Repair the Streets," in St. Nicholas (December 1910):

But liniments came into play / Before the midnight passed away, / And all the painful clips and raps, / That workmen get around such traps, / Could not the earnest band [of brownies] impress / Enough to halt, or labor less.

Also, from Frank Stockton, "Another Brownie Book," in The Book Buyer (December 1890)):

Here in this new book [Another Brownie Book, by Palmer Cox], we have them all, entering with an earnest and comic zeal into new phases of the life of to-day. They have not yet endeavored to find the North Pole, nor have they tried to revise the tariff laws, but we should not be at all surprised should they make efforts in those directions. They are very generous little fellows, these Brownies, and, true to their traditions, they take delight in doing for us what we do not seem able to do for ourselves.

It seems likely to me that a Christmas face that "is earnest, oh, so earnest—to the brownie point, in fact" is a face that shows serious dedication and resolve to the same point or degree that the faces of Palmer Cox's brownies do as those sprites pursue one of their enterprises for the betterment of a farmer's crops, a single person's chances at love, or the city's streets.

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    Not completely unrelated—just more a cousin than an early example, since the Brownies are named for the sprite. (The origin story and initiation ceremony for the Brownies involve children who are hoping for a brownie to come clean their home, and learn to be the brownie. I still recall circling a mirror in my troop leader's living room, reciting "Twist me and turn me and show me the elf. I look in the pond and see...myself!" Or something similar. A Brownie always leaves a place nicer than she found it, don'tcha know.) – 1006a Sep 25 '18 at 0:35
  • Thanks for the detailed research. This insight was unexpected, intriguing and appreciated. – RaceYouAnytime Sep 30 '18 at 5:26
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Does "brownie point" indeed derive from "brown point" as suggested by Green? Alternatively, is there evidence to back the theories related to "brown-nosing" or girl scouts?

From World Wide Words:

In particular, there are many references in newspapers during 1943–44 to brown points, which may have contributed the points part of the expression

and

However, it seems that Brownie points is actually an allusion to the junior branch of the Girl Scouts (the Girl Guides in other countries)

Does the 1896 reference to "to the brownie point" have any relation to "brownie points" as known today, or is it an unrelated turn of phrase?

To my sense and from the reference I post, it does appear to be an unrelated turn of phrase.

It seems probable that two — or even three — threads came together to form the phrase. There’s no reason why a slang term should have just one origin, and in fact the more antecedents and associations one has, the more likely it is to become popular.

The threads being army slang, the Brown (point) system of discipline, the Saturday Evening Post of the 1930's and brown nose of the 1940's. All of these are 40 some odd years after your 1898 finding of the phrase

  • I think it is impossible to do better than him. – Lambie Sep 24 '18 at 21:24
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According to Wikipedia, "Brownie points in modern usage are a hypothetical social currency, which can be acquired by doing good deeds or earning favor in the eyes of another, often one's superior." Also from Wikipedia, ".. proposed etymology is that the term derives from the name of a 19th-century American railroad superintendent, George R. Brown who, in 1886, devised what was then an innovative system of merits and demerits for railroad employees on the Fall Brook Railway in New York state. Accounts of his system were published in railroad journals, and adopted by many leading U.S. railroads. American railroad employees soon began referring colloquially to "brownie points", and at some point, the term entered the general vocabulary."

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