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.
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?
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.
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.
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.