"That's a great deal to make one word mean," Alice said in a thoughtful tone. "When I make a word do a lot of work like that," said Humpty Dumpty, "I always pay it extra."

Tuesday, 18 August 2009

Grow'd like Topsy

Occasionally one hears the expression that something 'grow'd like Topsy'. I thought readers might be interested to know its origins.

In "Uncle Tom's cabin, or Life among the lowly", published in 1852, Harriet Beecher Stowe describes the character Topsy - a wild and uncivilized slave girl who Miss Ophelia tries to reform. In Chapter 20 the novel recounts a conversation between Ophelia and Topsy:

"Tell me where were you born, and who your father and mother were."
"Never was born," re-iterated the creature more empahatically. "Never had no father, nor mother nor nothin'"
"...Have you ever heard anything about God, Topsy?" The child looked bewildered, but grinned as usual.
"Do you know who made you?"
"Nobody, as I knows on," said the child, with a short laugh. The idea appeared to amuse her considerably; for her eyes twinkled, and she added, "I spect I grow'd. Don't think nobody never made me."

At the time of its publication 'Uncle Tom's Cabin' outsold every book previously published in the U.S. except the Bible and readers were charmed by Topsy's declaration that she just "grow'd." Soon "it growe'd like Topsy" had become a popular figure of speech to describe something that grew or increased by itself, without apparent design or divine intervention.

According to the Word Detective, today, "grow like Topsy" is most often heard in criticism of bureaucratic institutions or government budgets, for whose bloated sprawl and inefficiency no one is eager to take credit.


  1. Never heard the expression, and if I had, I probably wouldn't have made the connection. But I read the book not too long ago (last year or the year before). One of those books that had been on my "classics-to-read-some-time" list for three decades or so, before I finally got round to.

    I enjoy this word-blog of yours... Like you I often get curious about the origin of words and phrases!

  2. No. Surely not a reference to bureaucracies. The Topsy connotations are far to nice and comfy to refer to the horrors of big organisations.

  3. Hope you don't mind but I referenced your blog on my blog:

    Just seemed fitting for the piece I wrote today.

    Andrew Martin
    Old IT Guy

  4. I am glad that somebody has traced the origin of "grew like Topsy". There's nothing like knowing the
    origin and proper meaning of the phrases one hears.

  5. agreed Sian! My Father just used the phrase, so I was pleased to find it here and I knew what he was implying!! :)

  6. I had never heard the phrase until this past Sunday on Fox News Sunday when Chris Wallace was interviewing Britt Hume, Chief Political Analyst for Fox News. When Britt used the phrase in reference to the growth of the government of the USA under the current administration, it caught my ear. I Googled and found your blog. Thanks!

  7. I knew it meant that something had grown LARGE but did not know that something grew without direction. Thanks!

  8. I use that phrase ALL THE TIME and was very aware of it's origins; it's nice of you to share your knowledge with others as to where it came from. "Uncle Tom's Cabin" is one of those books that few people of adult age have actually read but "think they know all about it", which they rarely do. It certainly be required reading of all adults! Between this book and "To Kill A Mockingbird", I've read them both at least 10 times; classics never wear out their welcome. <3

    I'm a landscaper so that is the reason why I use this phrase, in a positive manner, all the time. With the record amount of rain that we've been having in Chicago, ALL the gardens we care for "grow'd like Topsy." :D

  9. In a letter dated May 2nd, 1924 between two of my ancestors it reads:" Away so long from America, I've no idea where any of us were born. Feel we just "growed" like Topsy..."
    I am so grateful to see this website and be able to interrpret the letter's meaning.
    Thank you.

  10. A favorite expression of Milton Friedman