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Lewis Carroll’s 1865 novel “Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland” famously features an eccentric character called the Hatter, who’s referred to in the story as “mad” and became popularly known as the Mad Hatter. However, the phrase “mad as a hatter,” used to describe someone who’s crazy or prone to unpredictable behavior, didn’t originate with Carroll. Instead, the expression is linked to the hat-making industry and mercury poisoning. In the 18th and 19th centuries, industrial workers used a toxic substance, mercury nitrate, as part of the process of turning the fur of small animals, such as rabbits, into felt for hats. Workplace safety standards often were lax and prolonged exposure to mercury caused employees to develop a variety of physical and mental ailments, including tremors (dubbed “hatter’s shakes”), speech problems, emotional instability and hallucinations.
In Connecticut, mercury-induced tremors were called the Danbury shakes, after the city of Danbury, which was a leading center for hat making during the 19th century and into the early years of the 20th century (by the 1920s, only a handful of headwear manufacturers remained in the place once billed as the “Hat Capital of the World”). In the U.S., the use of mercury in the production of felt finally was banned in the early 1940s.
Researchers have suggested that Boston Corbett, a hat industry worker who killed John Wilkes Booth, President Abraham Lincoln’s assassin, might’ve suffered from poor mental health due to mercury poisoning. Corbett, who’d been employed as a hat maker since he was a young man, became a religious zealot and in 1858 castrated himself with a pair of scissors as a way to curb his libido. He went on to serve in the Union Army during the Civil War, and after Lincoln was shot by Booth on April 14, 1865, at Ford’s Theatre in Washington, D.C., Corbett and his regiment, the 16th New York Cavalry, were sent to track down the gunman, who was on the lam. On April 26, the soldiers surrounded Booth in a Virginia barn; however, Corbett disobeyed orders to capture the fugitive alive and instead shot and killed him. Corbett was cleared of blame by the military and lauded by many in the public as a hero for his role in avenging the president’s death. Eventually, he resumed working in the hat industry in the Northeast before moving to Kansas in 1878, where he lived a solitary existence as a homesteader. In 1887, he landed in a mental asylum after threatening a group of people at the Kansas Statehouse with a gun. The following year, this possible “mad hatter,” who was then in his 50s, escaped the facility and soon disappeared for good.
Hatter (Alice's Adventures in Wonderland)
The Hatter is a fictional character in Lewis Carroll's 1865 book Alice's Adventures in Wonderland and its 1871 sequel Through the Looking-Glass. He is very often referred to as the Mad Hatter, though this term was never used by Carroll. The phrase "mad as a hatter" pre-dates Carroll's works. The Hatter and the March Hare are referred to as "both mad" by the Cheshire Cat, in Alice's Adventures in Wonderland in the sixth chapter titled "Pig and Pepper".
Mad as a Hatter
Anatoly Liberman's column on word origins, The Oxford Etymologist, appears on the OUPblog each Wednesday. Subscribe to Anatoly Liberman’s weekly etymology articles via email or RSS.
About every well-known English idiom one can nowadays find so much interesting material on the Internet that almost nothing is left for an ambitious etymologist to add. Mad as a hatter has been discussed especially often, and my detailed database contains nearly nothing new. Yet I decided to join the ranks of the researchers of woeful countenance because of my slightly untraditional approach to the problem.
This is what has been said about the phrase. Since English speakers are apt to drop their aitches, hatter may stand for atter. Engl. adder “viper” is sometimes cited in this scenario, though the change from dd to tt remains unexplained. The merger of t with d between vowels is typical of American English, in which sweetish and Swedish, Plato and playdough, and the like become homonyms pairwise. There have been attempts to trace our idiom to America, but, as far as I can judge, unsuccessful. Although angry vipers are known to be extremely aggressive, we are interested in the consonants rather than the snake’s temper. The German cognate of adder is Natter, but mad as a hatter is English, not German. English has the noun attercop “spider.” Old English āt(t)or meant “poison.” If vipers are famous for their irascibility, spiders do not play such a visible role in the north as to inspire our simile.
Plato’s dialogues, the American way. Image credit: Play-Doh playdate by Meghan Wilker. CC BY 2.0 via Flickr.
Other linguistic games
The verb to hatter “bruise with blows harass, etc.” exists. Perhaps this verb was substantivized (that is, turned into a noun), and an angry hatter came into being. The origin of the verb is unknown, but it means approximately “to batter” and looks like its next of kin (possibly a sound-imitative word). Also, dialectal gnattery “irritable,” related to gnatter “to nibble grumble talk foolishly,” looks mildly promising as a clue. What if people used to say mad as a gnatter and changed the rare gnatter to hatter? Yes, what if? A citation has been found for as mad drunk as a hatter, so that, not improbably, the current idiom is an abridgement of a more sensible one (see the end of this post!). Finally, as mad as… need not end in a hatter among several other candidates, the best-known one is a March hare. Of note is the fact that mad, in addition to “crazy,” can mean “angry wildly excited.” However, the problem of the ill-tempered hatter remains. Perhaps the phrase is a borrowing? I am leaving out of consideration Charles Mackay, who, not unexpectedly, derived the phrase (at hatter) from Irish Gaelic. His etymology is fanciful. The French say: “Il raisonne comme une huître” (“He reasons like an oyster”). Couldn’t the French oyster, while crossing the Channel, turn into a mad hatter? Even stranger things happen at sea.
If I am not mistaken, all those hypotheses look rather unconvincing. And here I’ll say why I announced at the beginning that I have my own point of view. The main problem with the idiom is not its inherent silliness but its late attestation. No written records of the phrase mad as a hatter predate the 1820s. Even if it was current some time earlier, it certainly did not exist in Old or Middle English, so that tracing hatter to some ancient word is an unrealistic procedure. Rather probably, mad as a hatter appeared in English approximately when it was first recorded, and was slang. If the idiom was indeed slang, it may be useful to see whether real mad hatters are known. Indeed, some candidates have turned up.
(1) “William Collins, the poet, was the son of a hatter… at Chichester, Sussex. The poet was subject to fits of melancholy madness, and was for some time confined in a lunatic establishment at Chelsea. The other lunatics, hearing that his father was a hatter, got up saying, ‘Mad as a hatter’.” Alas for the chronology! Collins (1721-1759) died before the idiom became known. (2) Around 1830, a Mr. Harris was elected at the head of the poll for Southwark. He was a hatter in the Borough, and proved to be out of his mind. According to another version the “day on which he was ‘chaired’ in his own carriage was exceedingly hot, and his head during the whole time of the procession being uncovered by removing his hat, he was attacked by brain fever.” He died soon after that, but earlier one of Mr. Harris’s canvassers addressed the crowd so: “You’ve a shocking bad hat on. I’ll send you a new one.” During election campaigns, changing hats, with reference to changing one’s views was, was a well-known procedure. “A considerable number of hats consequently changed owners, and the saying having been put into the mouths of so many persons, it was taken up by the gamins [street urchins], and was in vogue for some time.” This is entertaining but probably useless stuff for discovering the origin of the idiom. I wonder: How did it happen that as early as 1868 no one knew the true story, and people kept offering all kinds of conjectures?
Under their own hat and perfectly sane. Image credit: “People Girls Happy Laugh Smile Friends Dress Hat” by StockSnap. CC0 via Pixabay.
Hatters as a profession
(1) Professional shepherds in Australia lead a lonely life and are considered “to be to a certain degree mad.” “…shepherds and hut-keepers… are very fond, wherever they can get the materials, of making cabbage-tree hats. The industry distracts their thoughts, and the hats are sold at a good price.” Conclusion: the idiom is an import from Australia. Unfortunately for this derivation, the idiom did not turn up in Australia before it was recorded in England. (2)“A lead miner in Derbyshire or a gold miner in Australia who works alone… is called a hatter.” He is said to work under his own hat and “is looked upon as eccentric and it seems to be presumed that the solitary worker does not work in partnership with other miners because he is a little mad.” Once again we can see that the roots of the idiom are supposed to be hidden in some local custom. The migration of a phrase or a word from one part of the country to another and becoming slang in the capital is not improbable, for just the foreignism of the item may contribute to its becoming part of the “street urchins’” language. But my question remains: Why did the origin of the idiom mad as a hatter become the object of guesswork so soon after its emergence? After all, were not dealing here with some exotic item like kybosh.
A hatter at work. Did they always work in a standing position? Image credit: Hat-maker making a felt hat by Carles martí botella. CC BY-SA 3.0 via Wikimedia Commons.
I’ll start a fresh paragraph for the last conjecture I know because it is the present favorite of our dictionaries. The hypothesis was offered in 1900, and its author (Thomas J. Jeakes) repeated it twice. I’ll reproduce his second note: “…the hatter’s madness was dipsomania [alcoholism], induced by working with hot irons in a heated atmosphere and in a standing position. The tailor works under similar conditions, but seated his condition is therefore less aggravated, and he accordingly gets credited only with pusillanimity and lubricity [that is, lechery, wantonness?].” Poor mean-spirited, promiscuous tailors! See my post on whipping the cat for July 22, 2015, and for consolation the post on nine tailors for April 6, 2016.
This is a cabbage-tree hat. Don’t get mad at the maker, even if it does not fit. Image credit: Marcus Clarke 1866 via State Library of Victoria. Public domain via Wikimedia Commons.
The rationale behind the hypotheses in the last section of the present post is the same: mad hatters abounded hence the idiom. I doubt that we are on the right track. There must have been a well-known incident (like the one recounted about Mr. Harris), but no promising story has come down to us. Nor did the “madness” of dipsomaniacal hatters become the talk of the town around 1829. Thus, I’d rather say: “Origin unknown.” As a final flourish, I would like to mention the British writer Joseph Archibald Cronin, who at one time was very popular. I have no idea whether he still is. One of his novels (not his best) is titled Hatter’s Castle. The cruel hatter in that story is not mad but certainly crazy. I don’t think Cronin chose the protagonist’s profession by chance, and I am sure other people have offered the same guess. As to Alice’s mad hatter, I decided to leave him in peace: everybody else discusses him and states that the idiom emerged in the language before the publication of the famous book. Identifying the model for that character is also on old chestnut. Consult the Internet.
Featured image: A possible prototype of the mad hatter. Image credit: “Rattlesnake Toxic Snake Dangerous Terrarium Viper” by Foto-Rabe. CC0 via Pixabay.
Anatoly Liberman is the author of Word Origins And How We Know Them as well as An Analytic Dictionary of English Etymology: An Introduction. His column on word origins, The Oxford Etymologist, appears on the OUPblog each Wednesday. Send your etymology question to him care of [email protected] he’ll do his best to avoid responding with “origin unknown.” Subscribe to Anatoly Liberman’s weekly etymology articles via email or RSS.
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late 13c., "disordered in intellect, demented, crazy, insane," from Old English gemædde "out of one's mind" (usually implying also violent excitement), also "foolish, extremely stupid," earlier gemæded "rendered insane," past participle of a lost verb *gemædan "to make insane or foolish," from Proto-Germanic *gamaidjan , demonstrative form of *gamaidaz "changed (for the worse), abnormal" (source also of Old Saxon gimed "foolish," Old High German gimeit "foolish, vain, boastful," Gothic gamaiþs "crippled, wounded," Old Norse meiða "to hurt, maim").
This apparently is from the Germanic intensive prefix *ga- + PIE *moito- , past participle of root *mei- (1) "to change, go, move" (source also of Latin mutare "to change," migrare "to change one's place of residence"). In Middle English usurped the place of the more usual Old English word, wod (see wood (adj.)).
The meanings "beside oneself with excitement or enthusiasm, under the influence of uncontrollable emotion" and "enraged, furious, beside oneself with anger" are attested from early 14c., but the latter was deplored by Rev. John Witherspoon (1781) as an Americanism. It now competes in American English with angry for this sense. Of animals, "affected with rabies, furious from disease" from late 13c.
To do something like mad "recklessly, as if mad or crazy" is by 1650s. Phrase mad as a March hare is attested from 1520s, via notion of breeding season mad as a hatter is from 1829 as "demented," 1837 as "enraged," according to a modern theory supposedly from erratic behavior caused by prolonged exposure to poison mercuric nitrate, used in making felt hats. For mad as a wet hen see hen.
Mad money , which a young woman carries for use in getting home when she and her date have a falling out, is attested by 1922 mad scientist , one so eccentric as to be dangerous or evil, is by 1891. Mad Libs , the word game (based on the idea in consequences, etc.), was first published in 1958
3. Can’t do something to save my life
Meaning: “Can’t do something to save your life” is a hyperbolic way of saying that you’re completely inept at something. It’s typically used in a self-deprecating manner or to indicate reluctance to carry out a task requested of one.
Example: “Don’t pick me – I can’t draw to save my life.”
Origins: Anthony Trollope first used this expression, in 1848 in Kellys and O’Kellys, writing, “If it was to save my life and theirs, I can’t get up small talk for the rector and his curate.”
‘Mad as a Hatter’: The History of a Simile
Since 1865, when “Alice in Wonderland” was published, readers have quoted and parsed his every utterance. He’s called simply the Hatter in “Alice” and Hatta in “Through the Looking-Glass,” but we know he’s mad the Cheshire-Cat tells us so.
Like the Cowardly Lion, the Mad Hatter is such a familiar figure that we’ve felt free to use his name without gleaning what afflicts him. His image has remained vivid, from the first book illustrations by Sir John Tenniel to Johnny Depp’s fleshed-out version in the Tim Burton movie that opened Friday.
But what did Lewis Carroll, a lover of riddles, mean by “mad”? The phrase “he’s mad as a hatter” was colloquial in Britain before “Alice.” Inquiries “respecting this simile” had appeared in the journal Notes & Queries, and in 1863 an answer, of sorts, was published, though its author was “at a loss to understand why a hatter should be made the type of insanity rather than a tailor or a shoemaker.” Readers were referred to the French phrase “Il raisonne comme une huitre” (“He reasons like an oyster”), suggesting that the French word for oyster, when Anglicized, may “have given occasion to the English ‘hatter.’ ” Hmm.
In the book, Alice herself finds the Hatter “dreadfully” puzzling his remark “seemed to her to have no sort of meaning in it, and yet it was certainly English.”
Linguists and phraseologists have tried to pinpoint the simile’s origins. Eric Partridge, in his “Dictionary of Slang and Unconventional English,” concluded that Carroll “definitely fixed the English sense” of the phrase as “extremely eccentric.” (Mr. Partridge also dismissed “mad” for “angry” as an American notion, though, he said, hatter/attercop, or spider, “has some support in ‘mad as a bed-bug.’ ”)
Since Carroll was well known as a mathematician, logicians have looked to his writing and discovered a sympathetic mind under the Hatter hat: perhaps a Mad Adder.
Physicists have used Hatterian concepts, often citing this quotation: “ ‘If you knew Time as well as I do,’ said the Hatter, ‘you wouldn’t talk about wasting it. It’s him.’ ” The physicist Robert A. Millikan was quoted in 1932 as saying that the Hatter was not mad “when he gave to Time changeable, undependable, capricious qualities which we assign to personality,” and furthermore, “who is the nearer right — the Mad Hatter or the common-sense citizen?”
The Hatter is focused on time, understandably, since the Queen of Hearts has accused him of being a time-murderer. This has added heft to the theory that a top-hat wearing inventor, Theophilus Carter, was the inspiration. Mr. Carter had displayed his Alarm-Clock-Bed — which was supposed to tip the sleeper out at the correct time — at the Great Exhibition in Hyde Park in 1851.
Next we come to the notorious “hatters’ shakes,” a result of poisoning from mercury used in the early days of hat manufacturing. At a recent news conference, Johnny Depp suggested that that was where “mad as a Hatter” came from. The Hatter is “this guy who literally is damaged goods,” he said. In the British Medical Journal in 1983, however, H.A. Waldron concluded that the Hatter did not have mercury poisoning. The principal psychotic features of this type of poisoning are “excessive timidity, diffidence, increasing shyness, loss of self confidence, anxiety and a desire to remain unobserved and unobtrusive.” The Hatter, he states, was “an eccentric extravert.”
All of this fits the spirit of illogicism in “Alice.” In response to one textual query, Carroll answered: “I’m very much afraid I didn’t mean anything but nonsense! Still, you know, words mean more than we mean to express when we use them.” He would have liked the Unreasoning Oyster.
Etymology of Mad As a Hatter
Claim: Working each day with mercury-soaked felt turned hat makers crazy, hence the phrase ‘mad as a hatter.’
Origins: In the 18th century, mercury salts were used to make felt for fancy hats. The process required copious amounts of the element, a substance then not understood to be as dangerous as we now know it to be.
Hat makers who day after day handled mercury-soaked fabric risked mercury poisoning, a condition that affects the nervous systems. Those so exposed would in time develop uncontrollable twitches and trembles, making them appear demented to the casual observer.
Even though there exists a strong tie between mercury poisoning and strange behavior in those long-ago hatters, it’s still more than likely the term we now toss about so casually did
not spring from this combination. Phrases such as mad as a March hare, mad as a buck, mad as Maybutter, and mad as a wet hen are older than mad as a hatter, leaving open the conclusion that hatter is but a variation of an existing term. (Interestingly, these other phrases pull in different directions, with mad as a March hare signifying odd or eccentric behavior, while mad as a wet hen characterizing anger.)
Whatever the definitive origin of mad as a hatter, we know the term wasn’t coined by Lewis Carroll in his 1865 Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland. The saying turns up in Thackeray’s 1849 Pendennis and Thomas Chandler Haliburton’s 1837 The Clockmaker.
Carroll’s “hatter” might well have been modeled on Theophilus Carter, an eccentric furniture dealer who characteristically sported a top hat. Carter was neither a hat maker nor had been exposed through his work to mercury fumes — if he had indeed been Carroll’s inspiration for the “Mad Hatter” of Alice, it would have been because he was a somewhat nutty real-life character much given to the wearing of highly noticeable hats. There also exists a possibility Carroll was unaware of the mercury connection to the existing saying. It’s also possible he had not previously encountered the saying and thus thought he had coined it himself.
Carroll’s Alice is replete with word play. He loved to twist words, and encoding double and triple meanings into his work was for him part of the fun. His Mad Hatter could therefore be a caricature of Theophilus Carter, a real person of his acquaintance, while his mad as a hatter could have been a twist on the pre-existing saying, mad as a March hare. Those familiar with Alice will recall that the March Hare was the constant companion of the Mad Hatter.
Moreover, mad at that time had more than a few meanings: “off the rocker” and “angry,” but also “venomous,” which suggests yet another twist in the game. According to A Dictionary of Common Fallacies:
Supporting the “adder” theory comes this entry from an 1882 phrase origin book:
What is the origin of the phrase ɺs mad as a hatter'?
The earliest documented use of the phrase "mad as a hatter" appears in Blackwood's Edinburgh Magazine , January-June 1829. It appears in a section of the magazine headed Noctes AmbrocianÃ¦ . No. XL1V:
TICKLER (aside to SHEPHERD.): He's raving.
SHEPHERD (to TICKLER.): Dementit.
ODOHERTY (to both.): Mad as a hatter. Hand me a segar.
So the term is at least one hundred and eighty years old.
It is believed to have come about because hatters in the eighteenth and nineteenth century frequently suffered from Mercury poisoning. Mercury is a chemical which used to be used in the production of felt hats. It is extremely toxic and can cause symptoms which appear to be similar to 'madness'.
Hatters in Danbury, Conneticut, USA are known to have suffered the ill effects of mercury poisoning, the symptoms of which were known locally as "the Danbury shakes." It is also claimed that the Danbury hatmakers were known as "the mad hatters," but evidence is unavailable as to whether this predates the appearance of the phrase in Blackwood's .
Apparently in New Zealand the name "hatter" was given to miners /prospectors who work alone. It was thought that they frequently went mad from the solitude of their claim away in the bush although it is more likely that they were named "hatters" after the phrase, rather than the phrase being named after them.
There also is a theory that the phrase is a corruption of the term 'as mad as an adder', which is roughly equivalent to 'as angry as a rattle-snake'.
The phrase has of course been immortalised by the Hatter in Lewis Carroll's Alice's Adventures in Wonderland , who was named "the Mad Hatter" in Disney's 1951 adaptation.
If you know your idioms you understand the language like a native speaker.
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During the 18th and 19th centuries, many men worked in the hat-making industry. The main chemical that was part of the manufacturing process was mercury, and the workers would use mercury nitrate in the process of turning small animal furs into felts for hats.
While it was unknown at the time, mercury nitrate is very toxic to humans. Too much exposure to the chemical can cause different physical and mental symptoms that can imitate insanity.
Some symptoms of mercury poisoning include:
- Mood swings
- Mental health issues
- Speech problems
- Memory problems in serious cases
The term first appeared in an 1829 magazine called Blackwood’s Edinburgh Magazine. Experts believe that the phrase first originated in Denton, Greater Manchester or Danbury, Connecticut. Both areas were prominent in the hat-making industry, as many men from these areas worked in hat factories, leading to more mercury poisoning cases.
+ &lsquoTo Boot&rsquo
Here&rsquos a bonus item on the list to boot.
&ldquoTo boot&rdquo is an expression that means &ldquoin addition to&rdquo or &ldquobesides.&rdquo However, it has nothing to do with the type of footwear that we throw on our feet in the winter.
So, why do we use the term to describe adding on to something? 
Legend has it that the word &ldquoboot&rdquo in this instance comes from Old English and Middle English. The original word, bote, meant &ldquoto have an advantage&rdquo or &ldquoto have something included in a bargain.&rdquo Over time, as the English language evolved, the word bote became &ldquoboot&rdquo and the rest is history.
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Read about more strange origins of everyday phrases and sayings on 10 Dark Ancient Origins Of Everyday Phrases and 10 Sayings and their Strange Origins.