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Hats off to hats

The word “hat” wears many hats in the English language. 

Figuratively speaking, of course. 

So how did one of our favorite winter accessories become part of so many idioms and metaphors?

Hang on to your hats, while we take a closer look.


Let’s start with “drop of a hat.”

University of English Professor Ann Curzan didn’t have a definite answer for this one, but she was able to track down some good information on etymologist Michael Quinion’s website, World Wide Words. He points out that hats are often used to signal things.

“Particularly in older days when people wore hats more often,” said Curzan. “If you walked by an acquaintance, men might tip their hat to acknowledge someone, you can throw your hat into the ring to accept a contest, you can put your hat in your hand to show respect.”

So what does dropping your hat signal? Besides butter fingers? 

Curzan said much of what she’s read on the matter suggests that dropping your hat signaled a formal fight, particularly in the American Old West. However, Quinion found a reference that predates Doc Holliday and the O.K. Corral.

“Quinion has found a quote from 1837 where it’s clear that ‘drop of a hat’ is already an idiom and it’s synonymous with ‘twinkling of an eye’ and at the ‘crook of a finger,’” said Curzan. “The quote is about how quickly people will agree, not whether or not they’re going to fight.”

As long as we’re refuting commonly accepted origin stories, let’s take a look at “hat trick.” 

Hockey fans will be disappointed to know this phrase didn’t get its start in the rink. “Hat trick” actually originates in the 19th century, on the pitch. 

“In cricket, a bowler who took three wickets with three successive balls was entitled to be presented with a new hat by his club,” Curzan said. 

Curzan said over time, the saying was extended to horse racing and then ice hockey in the US as an expression for scoring three goals in a single game.

Here’s one more. 

If “mad as a hatter” brings to mind whimsical tea parties filled with talking rabbits and singing mice, sorry, but we’re about to crush your dream.

Louis Carroll’s Alice in Wonderland helped popularize “mad as a hatter”, but the phrase’s real origin is much darker. It’s generally associated with the early 19th century, when hat makers used mercury as a smoothing agent in felt production.

“[We now know] mercury poisoning can cause brain damage and make your speech slurred, make you anxious and make you lose your memory,” said Curzan. 

“In other words, make you act mad, mad as a hatter.”

Sorry to end on such a somber note. If it happens again next week, we’ll eat our hats.

Anne Curzan is the Geneva Smitherman Collegiate Professor of English and an Arthur F. Thurnau Professor at the University of Michigan. She also holds faculty appointments in the Department of Linguistics and the School of Education.