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Hat Metaphors and Similes
I collect these. Welcome to add to this list. Also note that in some cases I don’t know the source of a particular expression. If you have knowledge or origin theories on any of the following, I’d love to hear from you too. I hope you enjoy these.
talk through the hat
Talk nonsense or lie. c1885. [In an interview in The World entitled “How About White Shirts”, a reporter asked a New York streetcar conductor what he thought about efforts to get the conductors to wear white shirts like their counterparts in Chicago. “Dey’re talkin’ tru deir hats” he was quoted as replying.]
eat your hat
There’s no sure thing, but that’s where this expression comes from. If you tell someone you’ll eat your hat if they do something, make sure you’re not wearing your best hat – just in case. [The expression goes back at least to the reign of Charles II of Great Britain and had something to do with the amorous proclivities of ‘ol Charlie. Apparently they named a goat after him that had his same love of life which included, in the goat’s case, eating hats.]
Something old and boring; outdated. [This seems to come from the fact that hat fashions are constantly changing. The fact of the matter is that hat fashions had not been changing very fast at all until the turn of the 19th Century. The expression therefore is likely about 100 years old.]
Completely unhinged, insane. [Hatters did, indeed, go mad. They inhaled fumes from the mercury that was part of the process of making felt hats. Not recognizing the violent twitching and derangement as symptoms of a brain disorder, people made fun of affected hat-makers, often treating them as drunkards. In the U.S., the condition was called the “Danbury shakes.” (Danbury, Connecticut, was a hat-making center.) Mercury is no longer used in the felting process: hat-making — and hat-makers — are safe.]
hat in hand
A show of humility. For example, “I come hat in hand” means I come out of respect or weakness. [I assume that the origins are from feudal times when serfs or any lower members of feudal society were required to take off their hats in the presence of the lord or monarch (remember the Dr. Seuss book “The 500 Hats of Bartholomew Cubbins”?). A hat is your most prideful adornment.]
Literally passing men’s hats between audience members or group members as a means of raising money. Also begging or asking for alms. [The origin is self-evident as a man’s hat turned upside down makes a fine container.]
tight as a dick hatband
anything too tight. [The Dick in this case is Richard Cromwell, the son of England’s 17th Century “dictator”, Oliver Cromwell. Richard succeeded his dad and wanted to be king but was quickly disposed. The hatband in the phrase refers to the crown he never got to wear.]
Three consecutive successes in one match or the other. For example, in a cricket match, a bowler scores three wickets with three consecutive bowls, in a football or ice hockey match, a player scores three goals or runs, etc. [From cricket, from the former practice of awarding a hat to a bowler who dismissed three batsmen with three successive balls.]
In the 19th century, men wearing derby hats were especially oriental businessmen, later con men, gamblers and detectives. [Derby hats, a.k.a. Bowlers or Cokes, were initially very hard as they were developed in 1850 for use by a game warden, horseback rider wanting protection.] Today, “hard hats” are construction workers [for obvious reasons].
in one’s hat, or in a hat
An expression of disbelief. [Origin unknown. Help us if you can]
throw the hat into the ring
Entering a contest or competition, such as a political run for office. [A customer wrote us with the following: “I read in “The Language of American Politics” by William F. Buckley Jr. that the phrase “throw one’s hat in the ring” comes from a practice of 19th Century saloonkeepers putting a boxing ring in the middle of the barroom so that customers who wanted to fight each other would have a place to do so without starting a donnybrook. If a man wanted to indicate that he would fight anybody, he would throw his hat in the ring.
At one point, Theodore Roosevelt declared he was running for office with a speech that included a line that went something like, “My hat is in the ring and I am stripped to the waist”. The phrase “my hat in the ring” stuck, probably because “I am stripped to the waist” is a little gross.]
Hats off. . .
For example, “Salute to the U.S. Winter Olympic Team.” Express approval or praise. [Origins must be from the fact that taking one’s hat off or tipping one’s hat is a traditional demonstration of respect.]
feather on hat
A special achievement. [I assume that the origins on this expression hail from the days when, in fact, a feather for one’s cap would be awarded for an accomplishment much like a medal is awarded today and pinned to one’s uniform. A feather, or a pin, add a certain prestige or luster to one’s apparel.]
grab your hat
A warning of impending excitement or danger. [When riding horseback or in an open-air early automobile, the exclamation “hold on to your hat” when the horse broke into a gallop or the car took-off was certainly literal.]
bee in your hat
A sign of excitement or an idea that you cannot let go and have to express. [A real bee in one’s bonnet certainly precipitates expression.]
This is of course a metaphor for taking on many different responsibilities or jobs. [Historically, hats have often been an integral, even necessary, part of a working uniform. A miner, welder, construction worker, undertaker, white-collar worker or banker before the 1960s, chef, farmer, etc. all wear, or wore, a particular hat. Wearing “many hats” or “many different hats” simply means that one has different duties or jobs.]
All hats, no cows
It’s all show, no substance. For example, in October 2003, Senator Robert Byrd declared that the Bush administration’s statement that it wanted the United Nations to be a partner in transforming Iraq was “wearing a hat, not a cow.” [This Texas expression refers to men who dress the part of powerful cattlemen, but don’t have the herds back home.]
Hang up your hat (or not)
Commit (or not) to something, or stake your reputation on something (or not), such as an idea or policy. For example, “I will not pay tribute to George Steinbrenner’s decision to fire his manager.” [Origin unknown. Can anyone help with this one?]
quickly. [Dropping a hat, can be a way in which a race can start (instead of a starting gun for example). Also, a hat is an apparel item that can easily become dislodged from its wearer. Anyone who wears hats regularly has experienced the quickness by which a hat can fly off your head.]
tip your hat or cap
Acknowledgment of respect, recognition, appreciation, etc. Example: “Salute to US troops for capturing Saddam Hussein.” [This is simply verbalizing an example of hat etiquette. Men would (and some still do) tip their hat to convey the same message.]
my hat not myself
It’s an expression from Ecuador, the home of the “Panama” hat. The meaning is what to say; rather give up your hat than give up your life. [The Guayas River runs through Guayaquil, Ecuador’s largest city on the Pacific coast. People from the city were known to hunt alligators for their hides in the river by swimming stark naked wearing Panama hats on their heads and long knives between their teeth. When the reptiles open their jaws and go for the swimmer, he dives leaving his hat floating on the surface for the alligator to chew on while he plunges the knife into the animal’s vitals. From THE PANAMA HAT TRAIL by Tom Miller.]
I believe it’s the French expression for bad guy. [Ludwig Bemelmans’ MADELINE series of children’s books, set in France, includes one MADELINE AND THE BAD HAT. In this story Madeline, our heroine, refers to a little boy neighbor as a “bad hat”. She clearly means this as a metaphor for a bad person and because I do not know the expression in English, I assume this is a common French reference. If anyone out there knows more about this, please drop us an email.]
Step by step. [Nevada Barr’s book SEEKING ENLIGHTENMENT: Hat by Hat means just that. Has anyone heard this expression otherwise? If yes, please email us.]
keep a secret
Keep it a secret. [People kept important papers and small treasures under their hats. One’s hat was often the first thing put on in the morning and the last thing taken off at night, so literally keeping things under one’s hat was safe keeping. A famous practitioner of this was Abraham Lincoln. The very utilitarian cowboy hat was also commonly used for storage.]
Here’s your hat, but what are you in a hurry for?
When someone is taking up enough of your time that you want him/her to leave. [Origin unknown.]
with his hat and his office
Small business. [Important papers and the like were often carried in one’s hat.]
set her hat
A young lady “puts her hat on” for a young man she hopes will be interested in marrying her. [Long ago, maidens wore caps indoors because homes were poorly heated. A girl set her most becoming hat on her head when an eligible fellow came to call.]
Putting on your “thinking hat” is to think carefully about some problems. [Teachers and philosophers in the Middle Ages often wore distinctive caps that set them apart from those who had less learning. Caps became regarded as a symbol of education. People put them on (literally or figuratively) to solve their own problems.]
black hat. . .
Black hat tactics, black hat intent, etc. refer to nefarious actions or designs. [Black hats in Western lore and literature were the bad guys.]
white hat. . .
While I don’t see or hear this expression as much as “Black Hat”, it’s the opposite of the above. [Good guys wore/wear white hats.]
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