What Does Off the Top of My Head Mean?

Off the Top of My Head Meaning

Definition: Extemporaneously; in an impromptu manner; without having precise knowledge or without careful thought.

People often use this before listing several of their ideas that they think of first.

Origin of Off the Top of My Head

Imagine if your head was filled with ideas. The ones on the top would be the easiest to retrieve, and they are the easiest to find.

These ideas might not be the best ones that you had, or the ones that have been carefully examined. This is the imagery that comes to mind with this expression.

This idiom originated in American in the mid-1900s. People typically say this before sharing their initial reaction to something, a rough estimate of a figure, or their first ideas.

An early example of this phrase can be found in Harold L. Icke’s 1939 Secret Diary:

  • He was impetuous and inclined to think off the top of his head at times.

Examples of Off the Top of My Head

off top of my headIn this dialogue, a brother and sister are trying to think of ways to surprise their parents for their 50th wedding anniversary.

Maria: Mom and Dad are so hard to surprise. I think it will be impossible to think of something unexpected to do for their anniversary.

Franco: That’s not true! It will be easy to come up with some ideas.

Maria: Oh yeah? Like what?

Franco: Well, just off the top of my head, we could make a compilation of their cutest moments from old videos. Or we could orchestrate a flash mob to tell their love story through dance. Or, we could recreate the moment they first met.

Maria: Those all sound like a lot of work.

Franco: You didn’t say the ideas had to be easy as well as surprising. And as I said, those were just the ideas of the top of my head. If you give me a little more time, I can think of some better, more carefully prepared ideas.

from the top of my headThe second example shows two university students who are discussing how many points the final exam is worth.

Lorenzo: I can’t get below a 90% on our final test, or I’ll fail the class.

Alba: Are you sure? How much is the final test worth in the overall score for the class?

Lorenzo: I can’t remember exactly, but off the top of my head, I’d estimate about 25% of the total score.

More Examples

The excerpt below is about ideas for a football team to improve.

  • “There were a lot of things I thought we did good, there were a lot of things I feel we need to work on,” he said. “Off the top of my head I can point to a couple, but I thought for the most part we moved the ball pretty good especially in that two-minute drill.” –OC Register

This excerpt is from an article about bringing manufacturing jobs back to Chicago.

  • Chicago is a city with a rich manufacturing heritage. If you look back at the history of the city, what was made here and still is made here, and you look at the South Side of Chicago and what is truly needed from a societal point of view there, we don’t know of a better place, off the top of my head today, where we would go. –Chicago Tribune

Summary

The idiom off the top of my head describes ideas or estimates that someone has spontaneously, without careful thought beforehand.

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