Bad hat
Posted: 12 October 2013 12:19 AM   [ Ignore ]
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The OED’s first citation for bad hat in the figurative slang sense ‘a scoundrel, a ne’er-do-well’ dates from 1877:

(Many of one’s own brother officers..fancy you must be ‘a bad hat’ if you have served on the Coast [sc. the West Coast of Africa].)

I’ve always wondered about the remark allegedly made by the Duke of Wellington when surveying the MPs of the first Parliament elected after the Reform Act of 1832 had widened the franchise, ‘I never saw so many shocking bad hats in my life.’ Of course the Duke, who was very particular about what a gentleman should and shouldn’t wear, quite probably meant literally that these underbred ‘new men’ were badly dressed, and that their poor-quality or ill-judged headgear showed them up as ‘not really the thing’.  This remark, like many Wellington quotes both genuine and apocryphal, was very widely quoted; I wonder if it could have given rise to the slang sense? But 1832 to 1877 seems rather a long gap for that - unless anyone knows any earlier sightings…

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Posted: 12 October 2013 04:16 AM   [ Ignore ]   [ # 1 ]
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Shocking bad hat was a vogue phrase in London in the 1830s and perhaps even earlier. Charles Mackay’s 1841 Memoirs of Extraordinary Popular Delusions deals with it at some length. Aldi posted a link to it a few years ago.

But this early use was quite literal. It was a way to goad a man by criticizing his dress. The Wellington quote may indeed be apocryphal, but if he did say it, he was probably referring to bad fashion sense with the class implications that go along with it.

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