Probable etymology of "top-notch", "top-hole"

Douglas G. Wilson douglas at NB.NET
Tue Jan 15 05:28:56 UTC 2008

Presented recently at Dave Wilton's forum.

Citations from the usual on-line archives.

I wouldn't be surprised if somebody had speculated along these lines before.


"Top notch" = "highest level" (thus "highest", "best"):

[_Portsmouth [NH] Oracle_, 12 Nov. 1808: p. [1]: [title of a
political item, apparently about an 'embargo act'] <<ON MUZZLES: /
Or, the Top Notch of Modern Republicanism.>>]

[This one is bracketed because one cannot tell the meaning with
absolute certainty here, IMHO.]

_Eastern Argus_ [Portland ME], 14 Feb. 1826: p. [2]: <<And the state
of Connecticut, the very top notch of morality, ....>>

_Pittsfield [MA] Sun_, 6 Aug. 1829: p. [3]: <<a _fashionable_ lady,
dressed to the top notch of _fashion_ ....>>

_Hagerstown [MD] Mail_, 29 Jan. 1836: p. [1]: <<Prices are up to the
top notch.>>


Comparable "highest notch":

_New Hampshire Patriot and State Gazette_ [Concord NH], 3 Feb. 1834:
p. [2]: [rising prices] <<so severe is the 'pressure' that we cannot
purchase a pound of good butter short of 18 or 20 cents cash; ....:
beef, pork, ..., and in short every thing produced on a farm, is up
to the highest notch.>>


Comparable "top hole":

[in OED] A. Conan Doyle, 1899: <<We certainly did ourselves up to the
top hole last night.>>


Probable ancestral sense:


"Top notch":

_Book of Games_ (1812): p. 38: [boys talking about high jumping]
<<Can you jump over that stick now? / No .... / Why we have it much
higher sometimes; look, I will take it now that it is raised to the
top notch.>>


"Highest notch":

G. R. Gleig, "The Country Curate", in _Blackwood's Edinburgh
Magazine_ (1826): p. 145: <<'the horse that Charles bought for me,
took me clear over the bar at the highest notch this morning, in the


"Top hole":

_Sporting Magazine_ (1824): p. 112: <<I was amused at his rider
telling me he could not think why he could not get him over a small
stile in the run, as he would leap the top hole of the bar in the
ride, at the stables where he stood.>>

W. P. Lennox, _Philip Courtenay_ (1855): p. 172: <<"Bill, put up the
bar -- top hole; he leaps like a squirrel. Now, Jim," and away went
Jim, with his back bent, his knees doubled up, and cleared the bar in style.>>


The top notch (or hole) originally referred to the highest possible
placement of the bar over which one jumped (on horseback, or
otherwise), apparently.

-- Doug Wilson

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