Friday, June 26, 2009


The expression "grows like Topsy" is apparently from Uncle Tom's Cabin, which I read long ago. Like so many books written prior to 1984 or thereabouts, it doubtless gives the inmates of political correction institutions many an opportunity to fume and froth.

I wonder how these people could ever achieve a sense of the past as something other than "it's not my thing". Perhaps they might meditate on a thing they do have in common with folks dead and gone - outrage, that combination of the two traditional sins of wrath and pride. We have never been modern, as Bruno Latour wrote.

Here is what I found on Topsy:
St. Clare's daughter Eva becomes friends with the young slave girl Topsy, and the novel recounts a conversation between Topsy and St. Clare's cousin Ophelia:

"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." [Chapter XX]

Given the astounding popularity of "Uncle Tom's Cabin" (at the time of its publication it outsold every book previously published in the U.S. except the Bible), legions of readers were charmed by Topsy's declaration that she just "growed." Soon "it growed like Topsy" had become a popular figure of speech to describe something that grew or increased by itself, without apparent design or intention, and by 1885 Rudyard Kipling was explaining to a correspondent that "I have really embarked ... on my novel.. Like Topsy 'it growed' while I wrote." 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.

From "The Word Detective" (April 27, 2002)


AJP CROWN said...

Thanks for this post Stu. Not having read Uncle Tom's Cabin nor heard the expression, I'd no idea about its background. Our dog Topsy was named after a teddy bear my wife had had as a child, but in some murky way that must connect back to this 'growing' simile.

Catanea said...

Ah, not after William Morris, then.