MUNDANE MYSTERIES: What Are “Brownie Points”?

“Brownie points” have become synonymous with currying favor with those in authority like teachers or bosses. But, where exactly did “brownie points” come from? And, what happens when you “earn” them?

One of the most popular explanations is that they originated with the Brownies, a subsect of the Girl Scouts. Often too young to be official Girl Scouts, Brownies were still encouraged to perform good deeds for their communities. So, instead of badges (like official Girl Scouts), they earned points.

But, the Brownies aren’t the only potential source for the phrase. In the 1930s, kids who delivered magazines like The Saturday Evening Post & Ladies’ Home Journal were eligible for “greenies” & “brownies”, vouchers redeemable for merchandise. They weren’t called “brownie points” outright, but it’s not too much of a stretch to imagine kids applying a points system to brownies earned.

The phrase could also have come out of wartime rationing in the 1940s, where red and brown ration points could be redeemed for meats.

The phrase didn’t really pick up steam until a 1951 Los Angeles Times article was published noting its recent uptick in usage. After that, married men began to believe brownie points could be collected by remembering birthdays & anniversaries, picking up dry cleaning, mailing letters, and not spending long nights in bars.

Later, students took the phrase to mean unnecessary devotion toward winning over teachers. Also called “apple polishing”, other students would shame their peers for being too teacher-friendly & sucking up (also called “brown-nosing”).

Since the late 1950s, though, “brownie points” became synonymous with any act where a favor could be expected in return, particularly if it’s from someone in a position to reward that act with good grades or a promotion. But, since we should all be nice & helpful to everyone else, “brownie points” should really be “pointless” at this point.

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