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Each morning, a colleague of mine greets me with the phrase:

Top of the morning to you!

I've tried to figure out what the meaning of this really is and how to properly respond, however there seems to be dozens of interpretations as to what this phrase actually means.

Does anyone know what the origin and original meaning of this phrase is?

  • 5
    I just said this in a message to a friend in N.I., and she came straight back with "and the rest of the day to yourself". I'd never heard this before - so came looking! – user44402 May 17 '13 at 7:11
  • I refer to the 1796 usage by the Englishman in his book, shown by the link in @Hugo's answer–which doesn't do much to answer the question, which is the origin of the phrase. – AmE speaker Jan 12 at 13:41
  • The phrase appears in Walter Scott's Guy Mannering (1815). Where did he get it from? – AmE speaker Jan 12 at 13:59
  • Also what does top mean in the expression? OED is ridiculously imprecise by giving the phrase as an example of both 'the earliest part of a period' and 'The best or choicest part; the cream, flower, pick'. – AmE speaker Jan 12 at 14:04
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The phrase is Irish in origin but now very rarely used in Ireland (except as a sterotypical "Irishism"). It simply means "the best of the morning to you" - perhaps from the idea of unhomogenised milk, where the cream rises to the top. An appropriate response might be a simple "thank you" although the traditional response would be "And the rest of the day to yourself."

Terrible attempts at Irish accents, dancing a jig and leprechaun costumes are entirely optional while saying this.

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    I notice you say "now" - my Galway father-in-law is heading for 80 and uses it so it may be his generation. – Wudang Dec 12 '11 at 18:41
  • The milk reference is intriguing, how'd you come about that? – hafichuk Dec 12 '11 at 20:04
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    @hafichuk The "perhaps" is very important- it's a bit of guesswork (although I think I've heard the theory before somewhere, I can't place where). Bringing the milk in is/was a typical morning activity so there seems a natural linkage. – Waggers Dec 12 '11 at 22:34
  • Marking this as the best answer that includes a response. Thanks! – hafichuk Jan 8 '13 at 15:50
  • It sounds like a very typical literal translation of what would be a perfectly natural and logical-sounding phrase in Irish, barr na maidine duit/ort. Only problem is I've never heard or seen that phrase anywhere in Irish, and the only sources I can find to support its existence are forum posts on the Internet claiming with no further evidence that it is the origin of the English phrase. Looks like a bit of a red herring. – Janus Bahs Jacquet Mar 3 '14 at 13:38
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This was used in Theodore Cyphon, or, The benevolent Jew: a novel, Volume 3 by George Walker, published in 1796. The protagonist is greeted not long after landing on the shore of Essex:

Halloo ! you teney" cried one, " the top of the morning to you. Have you seen pass a tall chap, in a light blue coat, with striped trow sers. ** Nea," said I, " I hana seen urn, what sort a man was en?"

"Halloo ! you teney" cried one, " the top of the morning to you. Have you seen pass a tall chap, in a light blue coat, with striped trowsers."

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    Wonderful find! I had no idea the phrase was centuries old. Doesn't quite explain the original meaning, but well worth a +1. – hafichuk Dec 12 '11 at 20:01
  • It's always a good idea to include a link to where you got that information. Otherwise it's plagiarism – Java D Aug 16 '13 at 12:30
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    @JavaD: The 1796 links to the book in Google Books. The book was published in 1796 and is 217 years old so I expect is out of copyright. I also clearly state the title of the book and the author and am not attempting to pass off the 217-year-old book as my own work. I did search Google Books myself though to find this quotation. If it was from the OED, I'd say so. Thanks! – Hugo Aug 16 '13 at 13:45
  • Doesn't answer the question. – AmE speaker Jan 12 at 13:36
  • @9fyj'j55-8ujfr5yhjky-'tt6yhkjj It originates from the 18th century. – Hugo Jan 12 at 16:54
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The phrase emerges from two related meanings of "top," was a common greeting throughout the United Kingdom in the 19th century, and fell out of use only to be revived as a so-called Irish expression by American filmmakers looking for ways to distinguish Irish characters.

The Oxford English Dictionary lists "top of the morning" under "Top, n.1," 17.a., where top means "The best or choicest part; the cream, flower, pick. Now esp. in the top of the morning, as an Irish morning greeting (cf. 13)." (13 refers to a temporal meaning for top: "Of time: The earliest part of a period; the beginning.") It's possible for either one of these meanings of "top" to come into play, even in a punning sense: the best of the morning and the beginning of the morning. I suggest that both meanings may be enmeshed together.

An example of the early use of "top" referring to cream is in a sermon on vanity by Anglican bishop Ezekiel Hopkins (d. 1690), given originally in 1668:

"The soul, next to angels, is the very top and cream of the whole creation."

This idiomatic use would work its way into a greeting over the next century. I agree with the lexicographers for the OED in grouping this meaning with "top of the morning" used in other early greetings.

That said, there are early sources attesting to "top of the morning" being a period of time rather than a greeting. Here is John Worlidge in A compleat system of husbandry and gardening (London, 1716), p. 143:

[...] especially if [the Plantanus trees] grow near together, they afford a very pleasant dark shade, and perfume the Air in the Months of June and July with their fragrant Blossoms, and entertain a mellifluous Army of Bees, from the top of the Morning, till the cool and dark Evening compels their return.

This feels like a description of time, noting when the bees will be out among the trees. The usage as a temporal reference comes up again at the end of the century in a book titled Vocal harmony. Merry fellow's companion, a collection of songs printed in the last decade of the eighteenth century (p.5, "The Little Jew"):

'TWAS the top of the morning so pleasant and clear ...

The phrase establishes a setting for an otherwise mundane song.


So how did this temporal marker become an idiomatic Irish greeting? Evidence suggests there was an intermediate period where the expression was used beyond Ireland, like in Scotland. Here is Dick Ostler in Sir Walter Scott's The Heart of Mid-Lothian (1818), ch. 29, speaking to the heroine as she travels near York:

Dick Ostler, who either had risen early or neglected to go to bed, either circumstance being equally incident to his calling, hollowed out after her — “The top of the morning to you, Moggie. Have a care o’ Gunderby Hill, young one. Robin Hood’s dead and gwone, but there be takers yet in the vale of Bever."

Dick is almost certainly a low Scot or a working class man in the north of England (where this part of the novel takes place). This makes his turn of phrase curious: Scott perhaps relied on his audience knowing this as a Scot or popular idiom. Similarly, the instance from George Walker's gothic novel Theodore Cyphon, or, The benevolent Jew: a novel, Volume 3, first published in 1796, features the idiom spoken not by Irish people in Ireland, but a group of "four sturdy men, whose countenances wore every lineament of hard inhumanity," about nine miles up the road from landing in Essex.

What, then, made this expression Irish or Irish-American? Perhaps only because the expression survived amongst Irish (and Irish-American) speakers longer? Blogger and amateur dialect researcher Ben T. Smith explains how the expression is more archaic than Irish, a form that persisted across British and Irish varieties of English through at least the Victorian period. By the early 20th century, meanwhile, a guidebook to Irish speech (English as We Speak It in Ireland, by P.W. Joyce, 1910) explains the greetings for good morning, where top of the morning takes a backseat to another common greeting:

"To the ordinary salutation, 'Good-morrow,' which is heard everywhere, the usual response is 'Good-morrow kindly.' 'Morrow Wat,' said Mr. Loyd. 'Morrow kindly,' replied Wat. ('Knocknagow.') 'The top of the morning to you' is said everywhere, North and South." (15)

However, it had fallen out of use by the time that mid-20th century American filmmakers had picked it up as an Irish colloquialism, like in the Disney film Darby O'Gill and the Little People or in the music of Bing Crosby in the film Top o' the Morning (1949). It had dropped so entirely out of the Irish lexicon that an Irish publication would look at the phrase and explain, "Hollywood invention, never used in Ireland." (Perhaps they should revise that to "not just used in Ireland.") Its resurgence is mainly due to Irish-American speakers rediscovering their heritage in an American Irish film stereotype based on an archaism once common throughout England, Scotland, and Ireland.

  • From your exposition I could Imagine that top of the morning in the sense best part of it, whether that's the earliest or another time, would derive from a habbit that whoever got up first to the breakfast table would receive the top of the morning milk, as @Waggers alludes to. Hence it might have started as a greeting with a limited target group, then going over denoting the time (to rise for the top of the morning?) and from the combination of both or only the latter to the general greeting. – vectory Jan 13 at 2:58
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    What is the solid, documented evidence, if any, that it was used (as a greeting, preferably) in Ireland herself before about 1790? Seems to me we have an Englishman and a Scott as the earliest users. This is "beyond Ireland" only in the sense of "outside of Ireland." – AmE speaker Jan 14 at 21:05
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    @vectory: You might want to check here before you start stringing German etymologies together: dwds.de – KarlG Jan 18 at 2:19
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    @vectory: Haut, 'congealed top of mousse'. Seriously? Haut is cognate to (animal) hide, hauen to hew, schlagen to slay, Fr. haut = It. alto (high). But Zopf is top. Think topknot. Quark is allied to Cz-Sk tvaroch, and Quark means Topfen, not the other way round :) – KarlG Jan 18 at 11:16
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    And Flocken are just flakes, which don't describe the chunks of chocolate people stick on a Zupfkuchen. – KarlG Jan 18 at 11:39
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First, he gets it right as a lot of people say "The top of the morning to you" but my Irish in-laws don't. It's an Irish expression and means "the best of the morning to you" and an appropriate reply is "And the rest of the day to you". NB wikipedia incorrectly calls it Irish-American. No, just plain Irish.

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This is by no means a complete answer—and I must admit at the outset that I haven't been able to find earlier instances of "top of the morning to you" than the one in George Walker, Theodore Cyphon: Or, The Benevolent Jew (1796), noted by Hugo in his answer from eight years ago—but I want to point out that the descriptive phrase "the top of the morning" appears a number of times in seventeenth-century sources, and may use "morning" in a literal or a figurative sense.

From Robert Harris, "The Drunkards Cup" (1653), reprinted in The Works of Robert Harris, Once of Hanwell (1654):

The offence is in a word, abusive drinking, (the abuse of eating not excluded, as appeares, Verse 17 [of Isaiah].) This sinfull drinking is described by the matter, wherein the failing was, and by the causes and effects thereof. The causes or parties offecnding, are set forth by three actions: first, they rise early, and are up in the top of the morning on this errand, wherein they are but too too diligent, and unseasonable, contrary to the rules of temperance, and customes (as it seemes) of their owne countrey.

This essay is prompted by consideration of some lines from Isaiah that begin (at Verse 11) with "Woe unto them that rise up early in the morning, that they may follow strong drinke, that continue until night, till wine inflame them." It thus appears that "the top of the morning" is equivalent to "early in the morning."

From Thomas Vincent, Fire and Brimstone from Heaven, from Earth, in Hell, or, Three Discourses (1670), page 11:

The day being come that Sodom and Gomorrah must be destroy'd, the Angels in the top of the morning hasten Lot to come forth, and whilst he lingereth they lay hold on his hands, and the hands of his Wife and Daughters, and (the Lord being merciful unto them) bring them forth, bidding him flee to the Mountain, and escape for his life, and not look back, lest he should be destroyed, which his Wife offering (notwithstanding the warning) to do, was turned into a Pillar of Salt; ...

Here "the top of the morning" again means "the beginning of the day"—although it is not clear from the context whether this is synonymous with "dawn" or some other marker of the earliest hour of the day.

From John Flavel, The Fountain of Life Opened, or, A Display of Christ in His Essential and Mediatorial Glory wherein the Impetration of Our Redemption by Jesus Christ is Orderly Unfolded ... (1673), page 488:

First, Christ began early to work for God. He took the morning of his life, the very top of the morning to work for God. How is it (said he to his Parents when he was but a child of about twelve years) that ye sought me? Wist ye not that I must be about my Fathers business? Reader, if the morning of thy life be not gone, oh devote it to the work of God, as Christ did. If it be, ply thy work the closer in the afternoon of thy life. If a man have any great and necessary business to do, it's good doing in the morning; afterwards a hurry of business and diversion comes on.

In this example, "the top of the morning" is used metaphorically to mean "the very earliest active stage"—here, evidently, the childhood of Jesus.

From John Worlidge, Systema Agriculturæ: Being the Mystery of Husbandry Discovered and Laid Open, third edition (1681):

This Tree [the 'Lime-tree'] is next the Platanus hereafter mentioned, of all other the most proper and beautiful for Walks, as producing an upright Body, smooth and even Bark, ample Leaf, sweet Blossom, and a goodly shade at the distance of eighteen or twenty Foot, their heads topped at at about five or eight Foot high : but if they are suffered to mount without check, they become a very straight and tall Tree in a little time, especially if thy grow near together, they afford a very pleasant dark shade, and perfume the Air in the Months of June and July with their fragrant blossom, and entertain a mellifluous Army of Bees, from the top of the morning, till the cool and dark evening compels their return.

The sense of the phrase here is again "the earliest stage of the day, presumably the morning counterpart of "the cool and dark evening."

Early English Books Online reports two other instances of "top of the morning" from the second half of the seventeenth century—in John Trapp, A Commentary or Exposition upon the Books of Ezra, Nehemiah, Esther, Job and Psalms (1657) and in William Westmacott, Historia Vegetabilium Sacra, or, A Scripture Herbal wherein All the Trees, Shrubs, Herbs, Plants, Flowers, Fruits &c. Mentioned in the Holy Bible, Are in an Alphabetical Order (1695)—but I have been unable to gain access to those texts.


Conclusion

From these early instances it appears that "the top of the morning" was a recognized locution for the earliest period of the day—either dawn or the grayness before it—by 1653. Whether "top of the morning to you" arose as a salutation between people meeting at the earliest period of the day or whether it arose independently of that relatively narrow stretch of time and always used "top" in the sense of "best" rather than "beginning" I can't say with confidence.

In the example from Theodore Cyphon, the title character has escaped from a ship anchored offshore of Sheerness during the night, walked along the shore until he reached a pier with a boat tethered to it, bargained with the boatman to take him across to the Essex mainland, disembarked and adopted the guise of a peasant, and "proceeded nearly nine miles [on the common road] when I was overtaken by four sturdy men." It is one of these men who accosts him with the words "Halloo! you teney, the top of the morning to you." Under the circumstances, it seems unlikely that the time of this encounter is anywhere near dawn. This suggests that fairly early in its existence as a salutation, "the top of the morning" did not have a close connection to the break of day.

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Supplemental findings (January 14, 2019)

I chanced upon this excerpt from John Partridge, Opus Reformatum (1693), reprinted serially in The Spirit of Partridge: Or, The Astrologer's Pocket Companion and General Magazine (1825), discussing the exact time of birth of Oliver Cromwell:

The time of this great man's birth, according as he gave it himself, was on St. Mark's day, in the year 1599, summo mane, at Huntingdon, whose latitudw is 52 degrees and a few minutes ; and this is the estimate time given.

Now the main point is, how we must understand this short sentence, summo mane; and it can, in my judgment, have no other meaning than very early in the morning, that is, in the very top of the morning, or suddenly after twelve, for so the words seem to import ; and indeed I can give it no other interpretation but this ; for the word summo must be taken adverbially, and derived from the adjective summus, which, in that sense it is here spoken, signifies the very highest, extream, utmost, top, &c. of the morning, though I confess the word morning takes in the whole time from twelve, or midnight, till twelve at noon ; but if he had been born after sun-rising, I am very apt to believe he would have used another way of expressing it, as ante meridiem, &c. ; but if before sun-rising, as indeed they all agree he was, then I can take it in no other sense but this that I have already given,—the top of the morning ; and the time pitched upon is at about five minutes after one of the clock ; and to that time the planets' places, both in longitude and latitude, are calculated by the Caroline tables, as followeth : ...

John Partridge is the seventeenth-century astrologer and almanac writer best known for having incited Jonathan Swift (in the guise of Isaac Bickerstaff) to predict the death of "A cobbler, starmonger, and quack" (that is, Partridge himself) on March 29, 1708. In the event, Partridge lived another six or seven years; but Bickerstaff asserted first that Partridge's assertion (on March 30, 1708) that he was still alive was a lie, and subsequently that the fact that Partridge was alive after March 29 was no proof that he hadn't, after all, been dead at least temporarily on the 29th.

For present purposes, the interesting element of Partridge's comments excerpted above is that it argues that "top of the morning" refers not to dawn but to the period soon after midnight of a new day. I have found no support elsewhere for this interpretation of the expression.

  • That Jesus quote obviously means the prime of his youth, taking morning as metaphor for youth in general. – vectory Jan 13 at 2:59
  • Nice research... so, so far, we don't know the origin as a greeting? – AmE speaker Jan 14 at 20:39
  • @9fyj'j55-8ujfr5yhjky-'tt6yhkjj: The origin itself remains unclear to me, but I found a considerable upsurge in usage in the period 1829–1835 in dialogue involving Irish speakers. I've added a discussion of these instances to my answer. – Sven Yargs Jan 15 at 1:14
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    @9fyj'j55-8ujfr5yhjky-'tt6yhkjj : The "O'Hara Family" is actually John and Michael Banim of Kilkenny, Ireland. I take their three instances (from 1829, 1831, and 1835) to be fairly solid evidence of legitimate Irish usage; likewise, the instances from Thomas Grattan (in 1829) and Samuel Lover (in 1832) seem reasonably strong. The "Irish Priest's Sermon" (from 1829) is pure burlesque and meaningful only as a received (and unreliable) stereotype of Irish speech. The instance by "an American in Ireland" is of slight value as third-party reportage. – Sven Yargs Jan 15 at 20:49
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    ... The wave of instances associated with Irish usage—and involving (in five of seven cases) Irish authors—does not, however, explain the chronological mystery that the earliest (so far) discovered published instances of "top of the morning to you" come from England (in 1796) and Scotland (in 1815 and 1818). I haven't been able to solve that mystery. – Sven Yargs Jan 15 at 20:57
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+400

My previous answer focused on what might be called the prehistory of "top of the morning"—the period between about 1650 and about 1700 when the expression was used descriptively rather than as a salutation.

This answer instead looks at published instances where "top of the morning" is used as a greeting or pleasantry. In particular, I want to look at instances where the expression is put in the mouths of Irish characters and instances where it is attributed to non-Irish characters.

The starting point for such usage remains George Walker, Theodore Cyphon: Or, The Benevolent Jew (1796)—meaning that a century of silence separates the last descriptive instance of "top of the morning" (John Partridge in 1693) from the first welcoming instance (George Walker in 1796).


'Top of the morning' as a salutation in non-Irish contexts

After the Theodore Cyphon instance of "the top of the morning to you" from 1796, the next two Google Books matches for the phrase used as a salutation are from the works of Walter Scott. These appear in books published in 1815 and 1818, as follows. From Guy Mannering (1815), spoken by a ship's captain named Dirk Hatternick:

The fellow's cloudy visage cleared up. "The top of the morning to you, sir; I find you are a visitor of my friend Mr Bertram—I beg pardon, but I took you for another sort of person."

Hatternick evidently understands Gypsy cant, but his name is vaguely Dutch and Scott describes him as having "somewhat of a foreign accent, though speaking perfectly good English." It is also noteworthy that he is mariner, as we shall see.

From Tales of My Landlord [The Heart of Mid-Lothian] (1818):

As our traveller set out early in the ensuing morning to prosecute her journey, and was in the act of leaving the inn-yard, Dick Ostler, who either had risen early or neglected to go to bed, either circumstance being equally incident to his calling, hollowed out after her, "The top of the morning to you, Moggie. Have a care o' Gunnerby Hill, young one. Robin Hood's dead and gwone, but there be takers yet in the vale of the bever."

As noted in TaliesinMerlin's answer, Dick Ostler is evidently a Yorkshireman—and a landlubber.

From "The Legend of the Stone House," serialized in The Ladies' Literary Cabinet (March 2, 1822):

At length exclaiming, "Shipmate, ho! the top of the morning to you," no answer was returned to this salutation, when he [Hobbs] continued, "where from my friend! what are you doing here?"

Hobbs is a sailor who has nothing Irish about him.

From Lee Gibbons, The Cavalier: A Romance, volume 2 (1822):

The dissimilarity between the manners of the Borderer, and the old courtier-like appearance of his dress, was so evident as to strike all beholders with admiration. On entering the room, he advanced to the ladies, and in his usual hasty manner cried out, "Ah! ah! Mistress Bradshaw! yer servant Madame! Miss Esther! guid mornin', the top of the mornin till ye.—Ye look like the queen o' the fairies, washit i' the dew of heaven."

The dialect portrayed here—as in much of Walter Scott's work—is evidently Scottish Border English.

From an anonymous author, Tales of an American Landlord; Containing Sketches of Life South of the Potomac, volume 1 (1824), speaking in the character of Dr. Clapperton, an American:

"The top of the morning to you, my Lord," said he; ' I saw you an hour gone by brushing away the dew. And so you have already encountered the keen wits of the mad poet of Hopewell? I have perceived you and him yard-arm and yard-arm for the last two glasses, and considered it high time to run down to your assistance. ..."

Dr. Clapperton is presented as a native-born American medical man.

From John Howell, "The Man-of-War's-Man," in Blackwood's Edinburgh Magazine (April 1826):

While the Court was assembling, I took a stroll round the decks, and had not gone far when I was accosted by Joe Green, one of the delegates of the ship, with a familiar slap on the shoulder, coupled with the usual salutation of,—'Aha, matey!—the top of the morning to you, my boy!—Hast any news?'

Here the entire dialogue is between sailors.

From "Nim South in Leicestershire" The Sporting Magazine (November 1830):

The top of the morning to you, Mr. Editor: here I am in the heart of Leicestershire. All the saddlers, livery-stable-keepers, innkeepers, lodging-house-keepers, and other keepers, are expecting to make a fortune by the emigration of that great fox-hound keeper Lord Southampton, from Quorndon Hall to this ancient and independent borough: ...

Nim South is an English sporting enthusiast, evidently with a particular interest in the hunt.

From "General Lee," a vignette set in Watertown, Massachusetts, in The Ladies' Garland (published in Harpers-Ferry, Virginia, October 15, 1835):

Gen. LeeThe top of the morning to you, good woman. Can you give a soldier a draught of milk?

The General Lee here is presumably Henry "Light-Horse Harry" Lee of Virginia, a hero of the American Revolution and the father of Robert E. Lee.

From Michael Scott, "Scenes in Jamaica," in Tom Cringle's Log, serialized in Blackwood's Edinburgh Magazine (October 1832):

"Good morning, Mr. Whiffle—the top of the morning to you, sir."

This line is spoken by the book's title character, Tom Cringle, a young Englishman in the British Navy.

From William Ainsworth, Rookwood: A Romance (1834):

"The top of the morning to you, gentlemen," said Turpin, (for so we must in future designate our friend, Jack Palmer) as he rode up, at an easy canter. "Did you not hear my halloo? I caught a glimpse of you on the hill yonder-I knew you both, two miles off; and so, having a word or two to say to you, Luke Bradley, before I leave this part of the country, I put Bess to it, and she soon brought me within hail. ..."

Turpin is Dick Turpin, the famous English highwayman.

From W.J. Neale, Will Watch. From the Auto-Biography of a British Officer, volume 2 (1834):

"Well, my old lady!" said he [Kerslake, a lieutenant in the British Navy], "the top of the morning to you!"—the "old lady" curtseyed.—"This your daughter, old soul?"—trying to take the hand of the latter, as she retired in much confusion.

Again we have a British Navy connection.

From Frederick Thomas, Clinton Bradshaw; or, The Adventures of a Lawyer, volume 1 (1835):

The sun was up some hours, before Bradshaw left his room; when he did, it was noiselessly, so as not to disturb Selman. ...

"The top of the morning to you, Bradshaw," said Willoughby.

"The top is toppling down towards the meridian," said Cavendish. "But where’s Selman?"

Bradshaw is the titular lawyer of this novel.

These examples stretch from 1796 to 1835 (at which point I cut off my search for examples). A disproportionate number involve people who have worked aboard ships, but there is also significant representation of the Scottish-English Border and the United States. None of the characters in these examples show any sign of intentionally or accidentally slipping into Irish speech patterns in any other respect, which suggests that readers in the period from 1800 through 1835 did not assume that saying "the top of the morning to you" automatically marked the speaker as being Irish.


'Top of the morning' as a salutation in Irish or pseudo-Irish contexts

Recorded instances in which writers attribute the phrase "top of the morning" to Irish speakers begin fairly early (by 1809), but the wave of such attributed usage doesn’t become a tsunami until the period 1829–1835. In gathering this group of examples, I have tried to keep track of whether the author was Irish and whether the piece was published in Ireland.

The earliest match for "top of the morning" as a salutation between Irish characters dates to 1809, in "Irish Courtship," a comic song included in The Hibernian Cabinet; A Selection of All the Most Popular Irish Songs, Than Have Ben Lately Written (published in London, 1817). Here is how the opening of the song is presented in The Hibernian Cabinet:

Irish Courtship

A favorite comic Duet sung by Mr. Rose and Mrs. Pearce in the comic Pantomime of Fairy Land, or the Wandering Magician, at Astely's Amphitheatre.—1809.

Mr. Rose. Och, the top of the morning to Katty my jewel, / Fait, your eyes, joy, as white as the milk in your pail, / Have bodder'd my heart, and so tipt me my gruel, / That by Paddy’s own self, I don't know what I ail: / ...

The same song also appears in The Universal Songster; Or, Museum of Mirth (1825), with authorship attributed to the English songwriter C.F. Barrett, and again in The Shamrock; A Collection of Irish Songs (published in Glasgow in 1830), a volume notable for the editor's explicit acknowledgment that Irish comic songs tended to be "written by persons who for the most part imagined, that to dress a flat contradiction in rhyme was to make a comic Irish song"; that is, they often involved caricatures of Irish speech by non-Irish writers. Still it is noteworthy that this popular song antedates all but the Theodore Cyphon instance of "top of the morning to you" and appears in the context of purported Irish idiom.

Another early instance appears in William Moncrieff, Wanted a Wife; Or, A Checque on My Banker (1819), in dialogue spoken by a character named Barney M'Shift, who claims to be "descended from the O'Mac's of Trotterbogslough":

M'Shift. Och! here he is: upon my word he seems to have been a mighty high fellow in his time, though he looks a little low in the world at present.—The top of the morning to your honour.

Moncrieff was English.

From Anonymous, "The O'Mullingonian System; Address to the Inhabitants of Liverpool," in The Kaleidoscope (August 17, 1824):

The top of the morning to yees, my darlings! My name's Mr. Terence O'Mulligan, Esquire, and may I never be after seeing that jewel of a place, sweet Tipperary, never no more, if I arent after feeling the highest felicity in addressing your honours, all three both together; for ye look as rosy, be my hod! as our one cow Paddy on a May morning.

This is evidently a specimen of Irish-mocking humor—as some people reckoned humor in 1824.

From "Darby and the Tug-Pin," in [Boston] Masonic Mirror, and Mechanic's Intelligencer (September 23, 1826):

As Darby Croney was perambulating Water-street, one misty morning, in search of work and a dram, he saw at a distance his friend, Michael Fowler, in seeming difficulty with Jenny, his high-blodded plodder—high in bone, I would rather say, than in flesh or in blood.—"The top of the morning to you, Darby," said Michael, "sure, ar'nt I right glad to see you when I'm in trouble now?" "Arrah, the top of the morning to you, Michael : Pray what the divil ails yourself and Jeanie : Are you stuck in a bog?"

The above is a U.S. presentation of Irish stereotypes, and not a friendly one.

From Daniel O'Rourke, "Latest Intelligence from the Moon," in The Inspector, Literary Magazine and Review (1827):

"The top of the morning to your aygleship," was the first salutation of Dan [O'Rourke], who, in his polite waggery, forgot it was barely midnight.

"A fine evening, Mr. O'Rourke," replied the eagle, in very excellent Irish; "I hope Mrs. O'R. and all the little ones are well."

"Fait, an' is it yourself that would spake, and in as proper as English as ever was spoken in Ireland?"

I couldn't find any information on the literary personage Daniel O'Rourke, but the Irish writer Thomas Crofton Croker wrote a book titled Daniel O'Rourke in 1829, and the name seems to be associated with Irish tall tales and fables in which O’Rourke figures as a character.

From the O'Hara Family, "The Rival Dreamers," in The Gem: A Literary Annual (1829):

"No matter, Noreen, only God be wid you, and wid, her, and wid the weenocks; and tell her what I bid you. And more betoken, tell her that poor Shamus [Dempsy] quits her in her trouble, with more love from the heart out, than he had for her the first day they come together ; and 'ill come back to her, at any rate, sooner or later, richer or poorer, or as bare as he went—and maybe not so bare either—only God knows. And so the top o' the morning to you, Noreen, and don't let her want the mouthful of praties while I'm on my travels; for this," added Shamus, as he bounded off, to the consternation of old Noreen,—"this is the very morning, and the very minute that, if I mind the dhrame at all at all, I ought to mind it;—ay, without ever turning back to get a look from her, that 'ud kill the heart in my body entirely."

As noted in a comment beneath my other answer, the O’Hara Family is actually two brothers—John and Michael Banim—of Kilkenny, Ireland. The Banims had ambitions to produce serious Irish literature and would have been in a position to know whether Irish country folk in the 1820s and 1830s commonly used the expression "the top of the morning to you."

From Thomas Crofton Croker, A Sunday in Killarney," in Legends of the Lakes; Or, Sayings and Doings at Killarney, volume 2 (1829):

Amid this state of affairs [a serious drought in Kerry], as Mr. Lynch and myself were enjoying the luxurious shade of the oak wood a decent elderly man was accosted by that gentleman [Mr. Lynch], with "Good morrow, Daniel."

"Oh, the top of the morning to your honour," said he.

According to Encyclopædia Britannica, Croker was an "Irish antiquary whose collections of songs and legends formed a storehouse for writers of the Irish literary revival"; he was born in Cork but moved to England in 1818. This instance is striking because it is presented as a reminiscence about a particular day, and the old man's greeting is mentioned only because he goes on to tell Lynch and Croker a folktale about how God made three ears of corn grow out of a griddle-cake.

From Thomas Grattan ("an Irish miscellaneous writer," according to his Wikipedia entry), "The Love-Draught: A Tale of the Barrow-side," in The Athenaeum and Literary Chronicle (November 18, 1829):

"The top o' the mornin' to you, Biddy [Keenahan]!" said Lanty, with a sort of half-look of mingled kindness and timidity.

"God save ye kindly, both!" was Biddy's almost inaudible reply ; for the faintness of anxiety, the mixture of hope and fear, almost overcame her.

This instance, too, has some credibility as representing actual contemporaneous Irish speech.

From "Irish Priest's Sermon," in The London and Paris Observer (November 22, 1829):

But the Presbytarian got the cleanest fall of all. Where do you think he fell? I suppose, now, you think he fell on his head, or his arm. No such thing—he fell upon the ground. And what do you think he did when he got there? Nivir a single thing to swear by, except lie like a drunken beast on the earth. (The top of the morning to you, Molly Doyle—I hope your early rising will do you no harm.)"

This is a ludicrous presentation of Irish speech by a non-Irish writer.

From the O'Hara Family (again), "The Irish Lord Lieutenant and His Double" in The Englishman's Magazine (August 1831):

"...well if it’s a thing that Captain Lighton axes the Lord Lieutenant to ax ye to cut his harvest, it would only be a good turn, afther all not to refuse; and it may sarve yourselves; and may be it might sarve me, too, in an endayvour I'm goin' to make to get lave to come home from my rambles, and take to arning an honest mouthful again; and so, there's what I'm come a begging to ye for; and now, the good night to ye, boys, or the top o' the morning; for that matter the day's breakin' already. God speed ye."

From "Reminiscences of a Juris-Consult," in The Lady's Book (January 1832):

Some days afterward a rough Patlander opened my office door, and with one of those ducking bows, peculiar I think to his countrymen, accosted me with "The top of the morning to ye'r honour." I raised my head at the odd sound, and returned the salute, but after a more civilized fashion.

The object of this presentation isn’t to make fun of the "Patlander’s" speech patterns, and the vignette is presented as a reminiscence, but the author is not himself Irish and so brings an outsider’s ear to the representation of the visitor’s speech.

From "Paddy the Piper" in Samuel Lover, Legends and Stories of Ireland (published in Dublin in 1832), describing events that occurred at night but with the title character deceived by the moonlight into thinking that it was morning:

So with that he looks up—and what do you think it was, Lord be marciful unto uz, but a corpse hangin' out of a branch of a three.

'Oh, the top o' the mornin' to you, Sir,' says Paddy, 'and is that the way with you, my poor fellow? throth you tuk a start out o' me,' says poor Paddy.

According to the Wikipedia page on him, Samuel Lover was "an Irish songwriter, composer, novelist, and painter of portraits." He was also a grandfather of the composer Victor Herbert.

From "Chit Chat," in The Metropolitan (June 1833):

Captain O'Sullivan. The top of the morning to you, Mr. Editor. If you are not over busy we'll just have a little talk. What do you think of the Whigs now?

This instance has no particular credibility as evidence of how Irish people spoke.

From "All Saints' Eve; or, A Recollection of the Irish Peasantry" by "An American in Ireland," in The Knickerbocker (September 1833):

Well, by gor, thinks I to mysel, not makin it known to nobody, I'll go to father Patt himsel, an if he has a dhrop of blood in his vanes, he'll do me a sarvice—for you see, what made me so bould intirely upon the Sogatrth, was kase I kilt myself savin him, when he was drownded in the say, afther tumblin out o' Mick Mulroony's boat in a squall. So afther biddin the top o' the mornin to his raverince, I ups and I tals him how Kate was the jewel o' my heart, an how she loved me bether nor all the world, an how her father was causin her for to marry, an how the thoughts o' it was killin her intirely ; an sure enough I persuaded him downright how I'd put an ind to my life if I wasn't the man to get her.

This appears to be Washington Irving’s attempt to replicate Irish speech.

From Frederick Marryat, Peter Simple, serialized in Waldie's Select Circulating Library (February 4 [?], 1834):

'Good morning to ye, Mrs. O'Rourke," says I.

'An' the top of the morning to you, Father M'Grath,' says she, with a smile; 'what brings you here? Is it a journey that you're taking to buy the true wood of the cross? or is it a purty girl that you wish to conſess, Father M'Grath? or is it only that you're come for a drop of poteen, and a little bit of chat with Mrs. O'Rourke?'

Marryat was an Englishman, a captain in the Royal Navy, and a novelist. Whatever his gifts at reproducing speech may have been, he was looking at Irish English from the outside.

From Mrs. S.C. Hall, "Jack the Shrimp," from Sketches of the Irish Character, reprinted in Waldie's Select Circulating Library (July 29, 1834):

I saw him one morning, as usual, poking after shrimps ; and was struck by the anxiety and energy of his movements ; notwithstanding his seeming employment he was intently watching every sail that appeared on the blue waters : when he saw me he rapidly approached.

"The top of the morning to ye, young lady, and may every sunrise increase ye'r happiness!"

Hall was an Irish writer, to judge from an introductory note that refers to "the enthusiasm with which the writer dwells upon the fine qualities of her countrymen."

From William Maxwell, "Rambling Recollections.—No. 1," in The Dublin University Magazine (April 1834):

"You are right," said MacDermott, "but it is unfair to let the honest men without, waste time in useless expectation." He opened the window. "Gentlemen of the 'pavé', the top of the morning to ye, as we say in Tipperary. Toddle off if ye plase. I’m going to practice at the post beside ye, and as the light's but indifferent, why, monamondiaoul! I might, by mistake, shoot into the gateway."

Maxwell was an Irish author from County Down, who, after fighting in the Peninsular Campaigns and Waterloo, eventually "took holy orders, obtaining the living of Ballagh, in Connemara".

From a review of Thomas Medwin, The Angler in Wales (1834), in The Monthly Review (October 1834):

"My friend, Sir Ulysses O'Shaunessey, was walking with his lady in the environs of the lake of Killarney, where he was going out salmon-fishing, and met an old beldam, named Mrs. Malwadding.—'The top of the morning to you.'—'The same to you, Mrs. Malwadding.'—'I dramed a drame, your honour.'—'What was your dream about, Mrs. Malwadding?'—'Och I dramed that your honour's honour would give me a pound of tay, and your ladyship's ladyship a shiner.'—'Well, but dreams always are verified by by their contraries.'—'Och, then, it is your honour's honour that's to give me the shiner, and your ladyship's ladyship that's to give me the tay.' Need I tell you that Mrs. Malwadding's wit ensured her both the tea and the money?"—p. 117.

From James Sheridan Knowles, "The Blacksmith of Clonmel," in the New-York Mirror (April 4, 1835):

"The top of the morning to you, William M'Mullin!" cried he [Phil Brennan], as he smilingly stopped and turned round. "The top of the morning to your friends, who have so kindly come along with you to receive me at my mother's house upon my wedding day. Good luck to you all," he added, "and good luck to the honest boys of Clonmel."

According to Wikipedia, Knowles was an Irish dramatist and actor, who left Ireland for Glasgow in 1817 at the age of 58.

From William Maxwell (again), "My Life," in The Dublin University Magazine (August 1835):

At that moment of general distress, a voice from the street exclaimed, 'The top of the morning to you, mother Macnamara! Will you give us “Jolly mortals" again if you please.'

'It's them thieves of the world from the barrack!' exclaimed the butler. 'Open the door and let us out, or, by the etarnal frost, I'll sware my life agin yees in the mornin'!'

From Frederick Marryat (again), Japhet in Search of a Father (1835), in dialogue involving an Irish laborer in an apothecary shop in London:

"By the powers, one would think that you had made a mistake, and handed me the rich man's plaister instead of the poor one. It's less whiskey I'll have to drink any how ; but here's the money, and the top of the morning to ye, seeing as how its just coming on night."

...

"And sure enough there was a Timothy in the other shop, for I heard the boy call the other by he name ; however, it's no matter, if it took off the skin, it also took off the thumbago, so the top of the morning to you, Mr. Pottykary."

And from the O'Hara Family (again), The Mayor of Wind-gap (1835), a novel set in Ireland:

"The top o' the mornin' to your worship" began Roger [Divey], snatching off his three-cocked hat, scraping his hob-nailed brogues along the pavement, and accompanying this movement by a corresponding bend in his lathy figure.

"A good morning to you, kindly, Roger," answered his worship, his gurgling voice making way with difficulty through his short round throat ; "and what thrials comes on to-day, Roger?"


Conclusions

In my earlier answer, I noted various 17th-century instances of "top of the morning" as a descriptive term. This was followed by almost a century with no matches at all (in Google Books or Hathi Trust databases) for the phrase, and then by an instance in 1796 from an English author of "top of the morning to you" as a salutation.

In the 1800s, the salutation form of the expression proliferated. Some of the earliest (1815–1826) instances do not involve Irish characters or authors. Of these, a disproportionate number involve speech by sailors and navy officers. Others are from the Scottish-English Border region or from the United States. Instances of non-Irish usage continue through 1835 (my research cutoff year); but starting in 1829, the instances involving a specifically Irish context become much more numerous than the other instances taken together.

A number of the instances in which the expression is attributed to Irish speakers come from obviously non-Irish (and in some cases anti-Irish) sources, but others come from native Irish writers and/or appear in Irish publications. The size and the seriousness of this latter group of sources persuade me that "the top of the morning to [someone]" was widely used in Ireland during the 1820s and 1830s.

Still unexplained is how the salutation "the top of the morning to [someone]" arose in the first place. Although Irish-attributed instances go back to 1809, non-Irish-attributed ones go back even farther, to 1796. And then there is the mystery of the discontinuity between the 17th-century descriptive phrase "the top of the morning" and the 19th-century greeting.

Ultimately, it is difficult to identify where and why the salutation "the top of the morning to you" originated, but it seems reasonably safe to conclude that it was in common use in Ireland—and was widely understood in England to be a standard expression in Irish speech—by the 1830s.

  • I don't agree with your conclusion (another possibility is Irish authors could have been writing with phraseology they knew to be, um, "fake Irish") but this answer especially adds so much more data to work with that it gets the bounty.... Thanks so much for your research and the seriousness with which you took the initial inquiry and responded to my pokes at your first response, which was also valuable. – AmE speaker Jan 19 at 13:58
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Phrase top of the morning

(Ireland, New England, idiomatic, archaic)

A generic greeting said to someone in the morning.

Usage notes

This term should be considered apocryphal of Irish speech and is a stereotype. While popularly used in the United States when imitating Irish people, or when celebrating one's Irish heritage (e.g. on St. Patrick's day), latter-day native Hiberno-English speakers would be unlikely to ever use this phrase. See Hollywood Irish.

Related terms

top of the hour

according to Wikidot.

For example, this poem from Henry Newbolt, written during World War I (emph. mine):

So I laughed, and felt quite well disposed to the youngster, And shouted out “the top of the morning” to him, And wished him “Good sport!”—and then I remembered My rank, and his, and what I ought to be doing: And I rode nearer, and added, “I can only suppose You have not seen the Commander-in-Chief’s order Forbidding English officers to annoy their Allies By hunting and shooting.”

Then there’s this quote, from the oddly-titled novel Knocknagow – The Homes of Tipperary, written by Irish author Charles J. Kickham in 1879:

They were met by the “man of the house” before they reached the kitchen door, and as he gave a hand to each, Father Hannigan’s hearty “Good-morrow, Maurice,” struck Mr. Lowe as being admirably in keeping with his appearance. And the words —”The top of the morning to you, Miss Grace,” suggested the idea that Father Hannigan affected the phraseology of the peasantry. This example is according to DialectBlog

protected by Jim Mar 3 '14 at 5:33

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