Hat metaphors and similes
I collect these. Additions to this list are welcome. Also, note that in some cases I don’t know the origin of a particular expression. If you have knowledge or theories about the origin of anything below, I’d like to hear from you too. I hope you enjoy it.
speaking through your 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.]
eating your hat
There is no sure thing, but that’s where this expression comes from. If you tell someone you’ll eat their hat if they do something, make sure you don’t bring 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.]
old and boring things; out of style. [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.]
crazy as a hatter
Totally insane, crazy. [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 demonstration of humility. For example, “I come hat in hand” means that I come in deference 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.]
pass the hat
Literally passing a man’s hat among members of an audience or group as a means of collecting money. Also to beg or ask for charity. [The origin is self-evident as a man’s hat turned upside down makes a fine container.]
Tight like Dick’s hat band
Anything that is 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 a game or other effort. For example, taking three wickets with three successive bowls from a bowler in a cricket game, three goals or points won by a player in a football or ice hockey game, 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 who wore bowler hats were specifically Eastern businessmen and later thieves, 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’s “hard hats” are construction workers [for obvious reasons].
In one’s hat, or in one’s hat
An expression of disbelief. [Origin unknown. Help us if you can]
Throw a hat in the ring
Participate in a contest or race, for example, a political candidacy 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.]
Congratulations. . .
“Congratulations to the US Winter Olympic team,” for example. An exclamation of approval or congratulations. [Origins must be from the fact that taking one’s hat off or tipping one’s hat is a traditional demonstration of respect.]
A feather in your cap
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.]
Hold on to your hat(s)
A warning that some excitement or danger is imminent. [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
An indication of agitation or an idea that you can’t let go of and just have to express. [A real bee in one’s bonnet certainly precipitates expression.]
wearing many hats
Of course, this is a metaphor for having many different duties 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 hat and no cattle
All show and no substance. For example, in October 2003, Senator Robert Byrd declared that the Bush administration’s claims that it wanted the United Nations as a partner in transforming Iraq were “all hats and no cattle.” [This Texas expression refers to men who dress the part of powerful cattlemen, but don’t have the herds back home.]
To hang the hat (or not)
Committing to something (or not), or risking your reputation on something (or not), such as an idea or a policy. For example, “I wouldn’t hang my hat on George Steinbrenner’s decision to fire his manager.” [Origin unknown. Can anyone help with this one?]
In the drop of a hat
Fast. [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.]
To Tip Your Hat or A tip of the hat
An endorsement of respect, approval, appreciation, or the like. Example: “A tip of the hat to US troops for the capture of 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 instead of myself
This is an expression from Ecuador, cradle of the “Panama” hat. It means what is said; it is better to give up your hat than 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 think this is a French expression for a bad person. [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.]
hat for hat
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 something under one’s hat
Keeping 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’s your hurry?
When someone has taken up enough of your time and you want them to go away. [Origin unknown.]
Carry your office in your hat
Operating a business on a shoestring budget. [Important papers and the like were often carried in one’s hat.]
His cap sets
A young woman “puts on her cap” for a young man who hopes to interest her 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.]
To put on the “thinking cap” is to think carefully about a problem. [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 intentions, etc. refer to nefarious actions or designs. [Black hats in Western lore and literature were the bad guys.]
White hat. . .
Although I don’t see or hear this expression as much as “Black Hat”, it is simply the opposite of the above. [Good guys wore/wear white hats.]