Last month, we talked about the many American idioms involving chickens. But you may be surprised to learn that there are almost as many that involve hats! As with chickens, the myriad references to hats in our everyday speech reveal their importance throughout history. Hats have been worn from prehistoric times (even Otzi the iceman was found with a bearskin hat) through the 20th century, for warmth and protection from the elements, to make a fashion statement, or to indicate the office or rank of the wearer. Once again, language provides insight into our shared cultural history.
From the 19th century through about 1960 in America, hats were worn at all times outside the home and sometimes inside. This role of hats as a necessary clothing accessory can be seen in the many styles of hats—as many as there are car models! Just think of the bowler, baseball cap, straw boater, top hat, homburg, fedora, beret, cloche, or Stetson (aka “Boss of the Plains).” The first annual Kentucky Derby in 1875 marked the largest hat fashion event in America. Large, elaborate hats are still a necessity while sipping your mint julep at the Derby in May. Similarly, the Easter bonnet, part of a Christian’s traditional new clothes at Easter, was a sine qua none for decades.
My father (1902-1982) never left home without his fedora, and I myself was required to wear a hat and gloves to church until my teen years. I always found it somewhat nonsensical that men doffed their hats at formal occasions (such as church), while women were expected to wear them! The speculation is that many people stopped wearing hats in the 1960s because of the rise of closed cars and other transportation, whereas previously the majority of people walked, rode horses, or travelled in open carriages. Another factor was that after the two World Wars, when men were required to wear hats with their uniforms, men did not want to wear a hat with civilian clothes. Climate control and changing notions of social class also contributed to the change.
I will highlight a few of these hat idioms in this entirely made-up story—meanings evident from their context—with origins for some of them.
Teachers wear a lot of hats. My favorite high school teacher was chair of the English Dept., junior class sponsor, and served on the district curriculum committee. “Now, put your thinking caps on!” she’d advise as she introduced a new topic. A thinking cap, previously known as a “considering cap,” is explained in the fictional History of Little Goody Two-Shoes (1765), which suggests it was used as a form of punishment. “A Considering Cap… [had] three equal Sides; on the first of which was written, I MAY BE WRONG; on the second, IT IS FIFTY TO ONE BUT YOU ARE; and on the third, I’LL CONSIDER OF IT…. It strictly enjoined the Possessor to put on the Cap, whenever he found his Passions begin to grow turbulent, and not to deliver a Word whilst it was on” (phrases.org.uk). Fortunately, the phrase’s meaning has softened since then!
When a student came up with a creative response, Ms. Isaacs would exclaim, “Congratulations! You’ve really earned a feather in your cap!” Plumed hats were popular from medieval times (who could forget the feather in Robin Hood’s felt cap?)through the 18th century, especially with aristocrats. The “cavalier hat”—the inspiration for our U.Va. mascot—was first worn by supporters of King Charles I during the English Civil War in the 17th century, and suggests chivalry and honor (think of the Three Musketeers or Puss in Boots). It featured ostrich, peacock, egret, or peacock feathers. Plumed hats are still commonly used among marching bands and the military, so earning “a feather in one’s cap” is a mark of pride or achievement.
I can imagine Ms. Isaacs kibbutzing with her friends in the teacher’s lounge after class.
“The principal is mad as a hatter,” observes Mr. Jones. “She wants a teacher team to challenge a student team in a game of football!” The idea of a mad hatter was not invented by Lewis Carroll (author of Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland, 1865). In the 18th and 19th centuries, industrial workers used the toxic substance mercury nitrate to turn fur into felt for hats. Prolonged exposure to mercury caused workers to develop a variety of physical and mental ailments, including tremors, speech problems, emotional instability, and hallucinations.
“If the teachers win,” Jones continued, “I’ll eat my hat!” An early record of this expression—registering surprise at something unlikely to ever happen—appeared in Dickens’s Pickwick Papers (1836). As one character announces, “Well if I knew as little of life as that, I’d eat my hat and swallow the buckle whole.’”
“Well, until this plan is definite, let’s keep it under our hats. Maybe she’ll forget about it!” Back in the day, the hat on your head made an ideal hiding place to stash secret letters, money, or contraband.
“Aw, she’s just talking through her hat,” responds Ms. Childress. “She knows one of us would just get hurt, and have to file for Workmen’s Comp!” The origin of this phrase, which means to talk nonsense or pontificate on a subject you know little about, is unknown.
“But if the plan goes forward, hang onto your hats! We’ll need to come up to speed fast!” says Mr. Smithers. It’s a hard wind that’s gonna blow!
“At yesterday’s staff meeting, she really had a bee in her bonnet about students littering around the outdoor picnic tables,” says Ms. Burgess. “Can’t say I blame her.”
“Those kids should go to the custodians with hat in hand and apologize,” says Mr. Beamer. Since the removal of one’s hat is typically a gesture of respect or deference, this means coming in a meek or submissive manner.
“But she’s resourceful—she’ll pull something out of her hat to solve the problem!” This derives from the standard magician’s trick of pulling a rabbit, scarves, or flowers out of his top hat.
“Did you hear that her brother plans to throw his hat into the ring to run for the School Board?” asked Ms. Pennymaker. “I think he’ll be a good advocate.” This phrase originally came from boxing, where contestants would throw their hats into the boxing ring as a signal that they wanted to join the fight.
Just then, Ms. Isaacs hurries through the door. “Okay gang, get out your wallets. I need to pass the hat for the Spirit Week fund drive to benefit Afghan refugees. Please be generous!”
“Good for the students. There will certainly be many refugees looking for a place to hang their hats,” Ms. Childress agrees. As people arrived home, their first act might have been to hang their hat on a coat rack.
“Changing the subject… we’re watching The Fault in our Stars in class this afternoon,” says Ms. Early. “I’ve stocked up on tissues, because I have more than one student who cries at the drop of a hat…. as do I!” This expression is thought to come from the practice of dropping or waving a hat as a starting signal for a race, fight, or other event—after which action quickly commenced.
Isn’t that movie kind of old hat?” asks Ms. Minor. “I plan to show The Hate U Give later this year.” As hat fashions changed, one needed to update one’s wardrobe.
“Oh, don’t be such a stick in the mud,” replies Ms. Early. “It’s a great movie!” And with that, break time is over.
The pandemic has made teachers’ jobs especially challenging. As the new school year begins, I’d like to say hats off to all teachers! The habit of tipping your hat in praise or congratulations continues to this day.