The Curious Meaning and Origin of the Phrase ‘Mad as a Hatter’

By Dr Oliver Tearle (Loughborough University)

Here’s a quiz question for you. Who was the first high-profile writer to use the phrase ‘mad as a hatter’? How about we narrow it down a little more, and ask: which high-profile Victorian writer first used the phrase ‘mad as a hatter’?

And let’s make it a little easier. Let’s make it multiple-choice. Was it:

a) Oscar Wilde
b) Charles Dickens
c) William Makepeace Thackeray
d) Lewis Carroll

The origins of the phrase ‘mad as a hatter’ are more curious than they might first appear. For although many people will be tempted to reply d) Lewis Carroll to the above question, the Victorian writer who was actually the first high-profile author to use the expression ‘as mad as a hatter’ was William Makepeace Thackeray (1811-63), who is best-known for writing the novel Vanity Fair.

But before we come to ‘mad as a hatter’, it’s worth stopping to look at the history of the word ‘hatter’. Originally, ‘hatter’ was an Old English word for ‘clothes’ or ‘garments’: it can be traced back to a Germanic root, and was in use in Anglo-Saxon times, before the Norman Conquest.

For example, the great early poet-chronicler Layamon, who wrote the epic Brut about the founding of Britain, wrote: ‘Alle his hateren weoren to-toren.’ In other words, ‘all his clothes were torn.’

As an alternative term for ‘hatmaker’, the word ‘hatter’ first enters the English language in 1212, when it was recorded as a surname. Since many surnames derived from the trades or jobs people did, the reference to Henricus le Hattere in the Curia Regis Rolls in 1212 tell us that Henry was almost certainly in the business of making hats. ‘Hatter’ was now part of the language (again), this time in reference to hat-making.

In his 1849 novel Pendennis, Thackeray wrote: ‘We were […] chaffing Derby Oaks—until he was as mad as a hatter.’ But the phrase ‘mad as a hatter’ was already in use: it appeared in an article in Blackwood’s Edinburgh Magazine published twenty years earlier, in 1829. Thackeray was simply the first famous writer to push the phrase into the mainstream.

And by 1865, when Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland was published, the idiom was so well-known that Lewis Carroll could name a character the Mad Hatter and everyone would know it was in reference to the phrase ‘mad as a hatter’.

Except there is just one small problem. Carroll’s book doesn’t actually contain a character named the ‘Mad Hatter’ at all.

Although there is a character who behaves in an eccentric fashion, who is wearing a large hat in the accompanying illustrations drawn by John Tenniel, he is referred to simply as ‘the Hatter’ throughout. Alice first learns about him from the Cheshire Cat:

‘In that direction,’ the Cat said, waving the right paw ’round, ‘lives a Hatter; and in that direction,’ waving the other paw, ‘lives a March Hare. Visit either you like; they’re both mad.’

At the tea party, Alice finds ‘a table set out under a tree in front of the house, and the March Hare and the Hatter were having tea at it; a Dormouse was sitting between them, fast asleep.’ The Hatter is the character who poses the now-famous riddle, ‘Why is a raven like a writing-desk?’ He also pours tea over the Dormouse’s nose when it falls asleep.

The Mad Hatter (sorry, the Hatter) is attending a tea party with the March Hare, another obvious allusion to a well-known madness-themed simile: ‘as mad as a March hare’, a reference to the spring mating season, was first recorded in the early sixteenth century.

‘Mad hatter’ would itself enter the language in the early twentieth century, as an allusion to the character from Carroll’s fiction: it’s first recorded in 1905. But as we now know, Carroll didn’t actually write a character called the ‘Mad Hatter’: only the ‘Hatter’.

But what was the meaning of the phrase? If ‘mad as a March hare’ referred to the sprightly frolicking and gambolling that hares can be observed to perform during the month of March, what do hatters have to do with madness?

The phrase most likely originates in the practice of mercurous nitrate being used in the making of felt hats. Its effects can produce St. Vitus’ Dance or lesser tremulous manifestations, since mercury is, of course, a poison. But even here, the Oxford English Dictionary is tentative, stating that the actual origin is ‘uncertain’ but noting that it is ‘perhaps’ an allusion to the effects of mercury poisoning suffered by hatmakers.

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