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.
You are watching: Top of the morning to ya laddies
Does anyone know what the origin and original meaning of this phrase is?
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!
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.
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 trowsers."
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 brickandmortarphilly.com 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
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 ...
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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 brickandmortarphilly.com through at least the Victorian period. By the early 20th century, meanwhile, a guidebook to Irish speech (brickandmortarphilly.com 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.