Oxford University Press's
Academic Insights for the Thinking World

Etymology gleanings for January 2018: Part 1

Hatters and madness

My most recent post (mad as a hatter) aroused a good deal of criticism. The reason is clear: I did not mention the hypothesis favored in the OED (mercury poisoning). Of course, when I quoted the medical explanation of long ago, I should have written the last set of hypotheses… instead of the last hypothesis. I find all medical explanations of the idiom untenable, and I should have been explicit on this point, rather than hiding behind polite silence.

The phrase (as) mad as a hatter turned up in print some time in the late twenties of the nineteenth century. One of the earliest authors to use it, as stated in the OED, was William M. Thackeray. He probably wanted to arouse a laugh by using a piece of the most recent street slang, as was his wont. Charles Mackay, whose pronouncement I ignored in the previous post, wrote, after confessing that he did not know the origin of the idiom: “There is no reason to accuse hatters of madness in a greater degree than any other artificer or trader” (1877). This means that almost half a century after Thackeray, the connection between mercury poisoning and hatters was not common knowledge, to say the least.

William M. Thackeray, a lover of the most recent slang. Image credit: William Makepeace Thackeray by Jesse Harrison Whitehurst. Public domain via Wikimedia Commons.

My database, which I mined for the essay, contains notes and articles published in the periodical press between 1869 and 1913. They came from England, Australia, and the United States. No one suggested mercury poisoning as the source of the idiom’s use. Characteristically, by the time the OED had reached hatter, James Murray had not formed an idea, however tentative, about the etymology of the phrase and promised an answer at mad. But no light came in the intervening years, and the first edition of the OED skipped the etymology of as mad as a hatter. For general orientation: Murray was born in 1837.

Even though hatters’ exposure to mercury and its deleterious effects were noticed rather long ago, the term mad hatter disease (erethism) is relatively recent. I could find no information about who coined it. Nor do I know why some websites are so positive about the origin of the phrase. Do they copy their verdict from the OED online?  To use James Murray’s favorite dictum, the hypothesis now accepted by nearly everybody is, at least in my opinion, at odds with chronology.

I have another argument against the medical etymology. For centuries, even for millennia, until the most recent past, when people had become a bit more civilized in their everyday behavior, madmen were feared and mocked in public. It is not for nothing that we have the word giddy. The root of this adjective is the same as in the noun god: derangement was looked upon as a punishment by the gods. Anyone interested in learning more about this connection should look up the etymology of the word enthusiasm. It is hard to judge, because the initial context is lost, but, most likely, the phrase mad as a hatter has always been humorous, something like gaga, he is not all there, kooky, to go bananas, bats in the belfry, and a host of others. The as…as phrases contain an array of the most incredible characters, many of them probably fanciful.

Mercury poisoning is a terrible thing. I happen to know a good deal about the subject, even without consulting Wikipedia (but many thanks for the recommendation to consult it: I am always grateful for bibliographical suggestions), because in my childhood and even much later only mercury-in-glass thermometers existed, and we were constantly admonished not to drop and break the instrument we held under the arm. According to a persistent rumor, Stalin had one of his closest associates (Valerian Kuybyshev) poisoned by the mercury rubbed under the rug in his office. It is inconceivable to me how such a terrible thing as an occupational disease, if its causes were known to the public, could have become the source of a joke.

Alice in Wonderland was published in November 1865. I assume that Lewis Carroll had no idea of the origin of the idiom. The attempts to find the prototype of his character point in the same direction. I assume that, in the words of Mackay, there was no need to accuse hatters of madness in a greater degree than any other trader or artificer. Nor would Lewis Carrol have treated such a grim subject facetiously: to him the phrase probably meant not more than mad as a March hare (incidentally, the origin of this bizarre simile has also been the object of much learned speculation) or as pleased as Punch.

Alice and the famous mad hatter: no visible signs of mad hatter disease. Image credit: “Vintage Book Illustration Alice In Wonderland” by Prawny. CC0 via Pixabay.

So, in the spirit of the subject at hand, I’ll stick to my folly, reject the reference to medicine, and repeat what I said a week ago, namely, that we should perhaps look for an explanation in some incident (now hopelessly forgotten: the etymological cat is gone, but the smile is still with us), a music hall joke, or some change in the wording. It is not altogether improbable that the longer version as mad drunk as a hatter once existed and, after drunk was dropped, turned into a meaningless but colorful simile. One of the correspondents to Notes and Queries wondered: “Does a mad hatter make madcaps?” I would be more inclined to derive mad as a hatter from mad drunk or madcap than from mercury poisoning.

To reinforce my conclusion, I would like to mention another idiom, connected with derangement. Today, this idiom is probably known to few. To sham Abraham means “to feign madness or sickness.” Abraham seems to have been the name of the ward in which deranged patients were confined in the hospital of Saint Mary of Bethlehem in London or any similar institution. How the ward’s name originated is not quite clear. It is said that on certain occasions, some inmates were allowed to leave the hospital, and many of them went a-begging in the streets. Naturally, they were harassed by crowds of jeering boys and shunned by respectable people. The patients of that ward received the name of Abraham men.

As time went on, the plight of those who occasionally roamed the streets of London began to arouse pity rather than ridicule and horror, and they were given money or otherwise taken care of. Feigning madness became a lucrative occupation for ingenious scoundrels. They would put on the Bethlem dress that indicated their status and impersonate madmen. This trick became an offense punishable by the whipping-post and confinement in the stocks. In Act II, Scene 3 of King Lear, Edgar, now disguised as Poor Tom, explains: “The country gives me proof and precedent/ Of Bedlam beggars, who with roaring voices,/ Strike in their numb’d and mortified bare arms/ Pins, wooden pricks, nails, sprigs of rosemary;/ And with this horrible object, from low farms,/ Poor pelting villages, sheep-cotes, and mills/ Sometimes with lunatic bans, sometimes with prayers,/ Enforce their charity.” Later, to sham Abraham “to malign” became part of sailors’ slang. Note the absence of the light-heartedness that characterizes the idiom as mad as a hatter.

This is what medieval stocks looked like. And another barbarous tool of punishment: a whipping post. Image credit: Digital ID cph.3b44982 via United States Library of Congress. Public domain via Wikimedia Commons.

In sum: I have no doubt that hatters suffered from mercury poisoning, but I don’t believe that this fact has anything to do with the emergence of our phrase in the 1820s. From the critics of this conclusion I would like to hear where I have gone wrong in my reasoning.

Featured image: Royal…. before it moved….. Image credit: Most of Bethlehem Hospital by William Henry Toms. Public Domain via Wikimedia Commons.

Recent Comments

  1. John Cowan

    Looking at the first two cites s.v. erethism in the OED, we find that in the 1800 citation it is used in the generalized sense of ‘irritation’. By 1833, however, in the Cyclopedia of Practical Medicine (which is available on line), we are told that “it has hitherto been almost exclusively confined to that species of erethism which sometimes arises from the use of mercury, and to which the appropriate name of erethismus mercurialis was given by the late scientific John Pearson, to whom we are indebted for the first notice of the disease.” The “late John Pearson” died in 1826, which is therefore the terminus ad quem for the use of this expression. Googling for [“John Pearson” erethism] shows that he coined the term in an 1805 paper, which I have not yet found on line, though there are many citations of it from the same period.

    However, these citations all seem to refer to the medical use of mercury at the time (mostly as a treatment for syphilis) rather than the chronic exposure to mercury vapor incident to the work of hatters.

  2. CM Sullivan

    I think the penal device depicted is a pillory. Stocks are for the feet.

  3. Constantinos Ragazas

    “Anyone interested … should look up the etymology of the word enthusiasm.”

    “Enthusiasm” derives from the Greek. Its root meaning is “divine inspiration”.

    No connotation with “mad” (as in “mad hatter”) here.


  4. Constantinos Ragazas

    “There is no reason to accuse hatters of madness in a greater degree than any other artificer or trader” (1877). This means that almost half a century after Thackeray, the connection between mercury poisoning and hatters was not common knowledge, to say the least.

    “… not common knowledge…” does not mean “no connection”.


  5. Stephen Goranson

    Granted that no one has securely put the lid on the origin of “mad as a hatter” (whether possibly mercury-related or not), and granted that “mad as a March hare” is older, March plausibly being breeding time when hares are frisky (unrelated to NCAA basketball March madness), and granted that the possibility of some famous mad hatter has been mooted, it may be worth noting Samuel Ogden, even if I am not persuaded he is key. Supposedly he was an eccentric or mad hatter from Manchester who presented a hat to the Czar visiting in London circa 1814, and then advertised himself as “Hatter to the Emperor of All the Russias.” But was he famous enough? Anyway, such is the suggestion in City [Manchester] News Notes and Queries, Sept. 6, 1879, p.209 by James Morris.

  6. Maggie Catambay

    My little brother and I played with mercury (from a broken thermometer) on the living room rug, rolling the bright soft silvery into balls. Fun!
    Even in high school chemistry my lab partner and I played around with mercury on our lab table. I have had mercury in dental fillings. Perhaps it explains any strange behavior you may have noticed…eh?

Comments are closed.