A notional mark of achievement or kudos for performing some creditable act.
The term 'brownie points' (often spelled with a capital 'B' when assumed to be in relation to the Brownies (junior Girl Guides/Scouts)) is known since the late 1940s. The first citation in print that I can find is listed in J. E. Lighter's Historical Dictionary of American Slang, which gives the source as MSU Folklore GF2.1, 1944-53:
"Army jargon 29: Blew his stack. Brownie points."
The 'MSU' is, presumably, Michigan State University. 'Folklore GF2.1' I can't decipher.
The earliest citation I can find which defines what is meant by the term comes from the March 15th 1951 edition of The Los Angeles Times. This published an article by Marvin Miles titled Brownie Points--a New Measure of a Husband. The term must have been unfamiliar to Los Angeles residents then as Miles goes to some length to emphasize the newness of the phrase and to explain what it means. He was also good enough to include an illustrative cartoon:
I first heard about them [brownie points] when the chap standing next to me in the elevator pulled a letter from his pocket, looked at it in dismay and muttered "More lost brownie points."
Figuring him for an eccentric, I forgot about them until that evening when one of the boys looked soulfully into the foam brimming his glass and said solemnly:
"I should have been home two hours ago ... I'll never catch up on my brownie points."
Brownie points! What esoteric cult was this that immersed men in pixie mathematics?
"You don't know about brownie points? It's a way of figuring where you stand with the little woman - favor or disfavor. Started way back in the days of the leprechauns, I suppose, long before there were any doghouses."
Well, that's the meaning and the approximate date of the phrase. The question is, what are brownies and how did the phrase originate?
Here's where uncertainty creeps in. Beyond the fact that the source is certainly the USA, no one is sure what the derivation of the phrase is but, as always in such circumstances, many are willing to make educated guesses. I'll go through the more commonly suggested derivations.
'Brownie points' is said to derive from:
- The system of merits and demerits that was introduced into the work practices of the Fall Brook Railroad in New York State by Superintendent G. R. Brown from 1886 onward. The system was well used and widely known on the US and Canadian railroads in the 19th century. Despite that, and despite it being well documented in, for example, K. J. Norman Browne's book The Brown and Other Systems of Railway Discipline, published in 1923 by the London Railway Gazette. The term 'brownie points' isn't recorded in relation to this system. Also, if this is the origin, why 'brownie' - wouldn't the expression be 'Brown points'? There is tell of the demerits being called 'brownie points' in 1942, although I can't find that reference. Again, this doesn't argue strongly for Superintendent Brown as the instigator, as 'brownie points' are merits not demerits.
- The Brownies. This is the name given to the seven to ten age range of the Girl Guides (Girl Scouts in the USA). The name was coined by Lord Baden-Powell who took it from a 1870 story by Juliana Horatia Ewing, in which children were given the option of becoming 'helpful Brownies'. In Scots folklore 'brownies' were benevolent imps that performed household work while the family slept. This helpfulness was encouraged in the Girl Guides, who displayed the merits they had earned in badges which were sewn on to their uniforms.
- The Curtis Publishing Company. This US publisher produced the Saturday Evening Post, Ladies Home Journal and Country Gentleman, which were delivered to subscribers by local boys. The delivery boys received green and brown vouchers, called 'greenies' and 'brownies' (equal to five greenies). The vouchers could be saved and later used to buy items from the company's catalogue. 'Brownie points', or even 'greenie points', would have been an obvious name for the tally of vouchers. No one appears to have used the expression at the time though.
- The Eastman Kodak company's Brownie Camera Club. This children's club began in 1900 with the intention of teaching youngsters how to take photographs using the Brownie box camera. Children could submit photographs into competitions and win cash prizes. There isn't any record of a points system associated with the club and this supposed derivation lacks any firm evidence to support it.
- Wartime US food rationing. Ration points in various colours were required to buy food. Meat was designated by red or brown points; for example, this advertisement in The Daily Times-News, September, 1943:
"Grade A Lambs Legs - 6 red or brown points per lb. 37cents"
- American military slang. This origin is supposed to allude to the practice of 'brown nosing', otherwise known as ' arse-licking'.
While some people are unwilling to look beyond the first explanation, the derivation that seems favoured with the best circumstantial evidence is the Girl Guides story. This is the only one that relates to the actual meaning of the expression, which has a definite undertone of being 'good-goody' and somewhat infantile. The term 'Brownie' was used as US student slang from 1944 and is recorded as such in a 1944 edition of American Speech, which defines the word as:
"A person who is always asking and answering questions in class to impress the instructor. Also a person who stays after class to try to insinuate himself into the teacher’s good graces".
The Girl Guides origin is also the only derivation that could logically lead to 'brownie' as opposed to 'brown'.
The actual origin of this slang expression is now very difficult to determine. There must have been a single person who first used it and it must have been in relation to something - most likely one of the above list. It is sure to be the case that when someone heard the phrase they imagined an origin that fitted their current knowledge - that's what most people do. The Miles article mentioned above supposed the expression to relate to pixies, based on the Scottish imp folk tale.
J. E. Lighter points out the probability of the military slang meaning being a stimulus to the wider use of the phrase. People who used it in the US military had little reason to consider the origin - they just used the phrase with the meaning they had picked up from context. The real or imagined derivation of a phrase can alter its meaning to some extent, as people would restrict their use of it to contexts that suited their version of the origin; for example, the expression might be used in different situations if the speaker thought it to be derived from junior Girl Scouts than from the vulgar US military usage. If incorrect assumptions obscure the meaning then we have a more difficult task in tracking down the true origin.
See other phrases that were coined in the USA.