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Mad as a hatter
Posted: 16 October 2017 11:56 PM   [ Ignore ]
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OED

f. as mad as a hatter [see mad hatter n. at Special uses 3.]
1829 Blackwood’s Edinb. Mag. June 792 Tickler (aside to Shepherd.) He’s raving. Shepherd (to Tickler.) Dementit. [sic] Odoherty (to both.) Mad as a hatter. Hand me a segar.

There seems to be a few versions to the origin of this phrase.
One popular version is that it comes from the people who worked in hat factories in the early 19th century and were exposed to the mercuric nitrate fumes, which caused them to stagger and muddle their speech; hence they were called mad, (mad as a hatter).

Another version comes from the English word hetter, meaning furious, violent. 

Folk-Etymology a Dictionary of Verbal Corruptions or Words Perverted in Form or Meaning , by False Derivation or Mistaken Analogy by Rev. A. Smythe Palmer first published in 1882

Hatter in the phrase, “ As mad as a hatter,” a proverbial libel on a quiet class of tradesmen—stereotyped for the present generation in the excellent fooling of Alice in Wonderland—is perhaps a popular survival of the old English word hetter, meaning furious, violent, inflamed with anger. It still survives in various senses in the Provincial dialects, e.g. hetter, ill-natured, bitter, keen (North), spiteful, malicious (Northampt. Sternberg); Scot. hettle, fiery, irritable; Cheshire hattle, wild; A. Sax, hoetol, hot, furious, from A. Sax. hát, hot; Icel. heitr, Swed. het. Compare also O. Eng. hethele, a hot iron; hotter, to boil (North); hotterin, boiling with passion—Ira brevis furor. Cf. “But for her I should ha’ gone hothering mad.”—Dickens, Hard Times, chap. xi. Compare also Goth. hatis, wrath, hatan, to hate, connected with Sansk. k’anda, hot, flaming, passionate (Bopp). Hatterliche, hetterly in old English =violently, angrily, fiercely.

Lastly, William and Mary Morris Dictionary of Word and Phrase Origins:

The explanation of this phrase that I find most believable holds that hatter is really a variant form of the Anglo-Saxon word atter, meaning “poison.” Atter, of course, is closely related to “adder,” the venomous viper whose sting was thought to cause insanity. This explanation has much to recommend it. For one thing, it explains why the phrase, in one form or another, was current before hatmaking became a recognized trade. Secondly it removes the stigma from an otherwise honorable means of employment.

What say you?

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Posted: 17 October 2017 02:56 AM   [ Ignore ]   [ # 1 ]
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I would say that the relation to atter was suspect.  The snake was known as a næddre in West Saxon and didn’t become adder until Middle English.

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Posted: 17 October 2017 04:16 AM   [ Ignore ]   [ # 2 ]
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The Smythe Palmer source is just wrong. There is no Old English word hoetol or hat meaning hot. The word is hætu, and it does not appear in the extant corpus with those other vowels. I can’t speak to the dialectal uses of hetter, but given his track record on the Old English, I don’t trust what he has to say.

As for the Morris’s, they’re wrong on the dates. The term hatter dates to the thirteenth century, originally as a surname for the tradesmen. So the trade long predates the use of mercury in hats. Felt hats, made with mercury, were stylish in France from the eighteenth century. I have read (I’m not an expert on the history of hats) that they became fashionable in England around 1830, which is about when the phrase appears. Of course, the English may have been aware of the dangers from the French before this. Lewis Carroll’s Mad Hatter dates to 1865. So the dates are a bit fishy, but the mercury in hats explanation is by no means invalidated by them.

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Posted: 17 October 2017 04:38 AM   [ Ignore ]   [ # 3 ]
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This explanation has much to recommend it. For one thing, it explains why the phrase, in one form or another, was current before hatmaking became a recognized trade

But it wasn’t. Hatting as a distinct trade is very ancient: the Curia Regis Rolls list a Henricus le Hattere in 1212, and the first mention of a formal guild of hatters regulating the trade in London is from 1311. And the use of mercury to turn rabbit, hare or cat fur into felt was introduced in the early 18th century, as beaver fur (which didn’t need mercury to be felted) became harder to obtain and soared in price. From the middle of that century symptoms of mercury poisoning, which include trembling, convulsions and mood disorders, were routinely noted in hatters. So the date of the first sighting of the phrase certainly fits this hypothesis pretty well. (Incidentally, Carroll’s Mad Hatter is described as fidgety, trembly, ‘uneasy’ and ‘anxious’, all possible symptoms of mercury poisoning.)

I would say that the relation to atter was suspect.  The snake was known as a næddre in West Saxon and didn’t become adder until Middle English.

The version of the snake-related explanation that I first read, half a century ago (I can’t say exactly where - it was one of those ‘Fascinating Facts’ books) was that the phrase had originally been “mad as a natter” (natter survived as a dialect for adder into the 18th century), with mad used in the sense ‘angry’; but that at some point it was misheard or misunderstood as “mad as an ‘atter”. Not impossible, but AFAIK not supported by a scrap of evidence, either.

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Posted: 17 October 2017 08:40 AM   [ Ignore ]   [ # 4 ]
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I would say that the relation to atter was suspect. The snake was known as a næddre in West Saxon and didn’t become adder until Middle English.

But hatter is a variant form of atter meaning poison, which goes back to old English. Why would it be suspect? Regardless, it seems we’re all at a loss to the actual origin of mad as a hatter.

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Posted: 17 October 2017 09:09 AM   [ Ignore ]   [ # 5 ]
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"Mad as a venoumous snake” or “mad as a hat-maker” makes a degree of sense; “mad as a poison” doesn’t.

[ Edited: 17 October 2017 09:12 AM by Dr. Techie ]
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Posted: 17 October 2017 12:48 PM   [ Ignore ]   [ # 6 ]
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As for the Morris’s, they’re wrong on the dates. The term hatter dates to the thirteenth century, originally as a surname for the tradesmen. So the trade long predates the use of mercury in hats. Felt hats, made with mercury, were stylish in France from the eighteenth century. I have read (I’m not an expert on the history of hats) that they became fashionable in England around 1830, which is about when the phrase appears. Of course, the English may have been aware of the dangers from the French before this. Lewis Carroll’s Mad Hatter dates to 1865. So the dates are a bit fishy, but the mercury in hats explanation is by no means invalidated by them.

But the Morris’s claimed that the phrase was current before hatmaking became a recognized trade. Keep in mind that the felt hat industry was introduced into England around 1830. The OED’s fist entry for “as mad as a hatter” is 1829. We don’t have any information that the English might have been aware of the dangers from the French.

WikipediA

• An adaptation of the Anglo-Saxon word atter meaning poison, closely related to the word adder for the poisonous Crossed Viper. Lexicographers William and Mary Morris in Morris Dictionary of Word and Phrase Origins (1977) favour this derivation because “mad as a hatter” was known before hat making was a recognized trade.[1] According to A Dictionary of Common Fallacies (1980), “‘mad’ meant ‘venomous’ and ‘hatter’ is a corruption of ‘adder’, or viper, so that the phrase ‘mad as an atter’ originally meant ‘as venomous as a viper’.”

Furthermore, in 1934 a scientific study determined and documented mercury poisoning in hatters and in 1943 mercury was no longer used in hatmaking.  Therefore, it would seem unlikely that the phrase would refer to hatters when its usage was first documented in 1829.

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Posted: 17 October 2017 04:58 PM   [ Ignore ]   [ # 7 ]
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Logophile - 17 October 2017 12:48 PM

But the Morris’s claimed that the phrase was current before hatmaking became a recognized trade.

But that claim is demonstrably wrong. Hatmaking has been a trade in England for some eight hundred years, at least.

Keep in mind that the felt hat industry was introduced into England around 1830.

After some further research, that claim is also absolutely wrong. Felt hats were produced in England in the millions starting in the eighteenth century, if not earlier.

Furthermore, in 1934 a scientific study determined and documented mercury poisoning in hatters and in 1943 mercury was no longer used in hatmaking.  Therefore, it would seem unlikely that the phrase would refer to hatters when its usage was first documented in 1829.

There are earlier studies from the nineteenth century. The 1934 study prompted the banning of mercury in US hat manufacture, but that’s got nothing to do with the origin of the phrase. All that’s needed for the phrase is people to notice the symptoms in hatters. Knowing the cause of those symptoms isn’t needed.

1829 appears to be the first recorded incidence of symptoms of mercury poisoning in the medical literature, but that doesn’t mean that the symptoms weren’t generally known before then, and in fact it seems likely that they were.

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Posted: 17 October 2017 11:30 PM   [ Ignore ]   [ # 8 ]
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But that claim is demonstrably wrong. Hatmaking has been a trade in England for some eight hundred years, at least.

It might have been a trade but hats were first manufactured in England about 1510…

Therefore how recognized was it? Furthermore, the only hatmaking that contained mercury were felt hats, which were apparently first manufactured in France in the 17th century and later in England.

Keep in mind that the felt hat industry was introduced into England around 1830.

After some further research, that claim is also absolutely wrong. Felt hats were produced in England in the millions starting in the eighteenth century, if not earlier.

It seems that all these dates and sources are disputed and that there are many versions to the origin of the phrase. Regardless, the origin of the phrase is still unclear. I also question the accuracy of felt hats being produced in England starting in the eighteenth century, if not earlier.

http://www.occhealthnews.net/hatters.htm

Gardner (Dodgson 1960) has pointed out that the phrases “mad as a hatter” and “mad as a March hare’ were in common use in Carroll’s time and that “mad as a hatter” may have been a play on the cockney corruption “mad as an adder.” He suggests, however, that it “...more likely owes its origin to the fact that until recently hatters actually did go mad...” Writing in 1960, Gardner may be referring to the 20th century, since Thackrah failed to note the characteristic erethism of mercury poisoning in hatters in the 1830’s, and the mercurial secretage may not have been reintroduced into England until the late 1850’s (Taylor 1875). Between then and 1865 the symptoms of mercury poisoning in hatters could have been known but could hardly have become a by-word.

He points out, in consonance with Gardner’s statement that the expression “mad as a hatter” was in common use in England during the middle of the 19th century, that the expression appears in Chapter 10 of Thackerah’s Pendennis, which was published in 1850. Thackrah’s failure to note the use of mercury nitrate in the hat industry supports the fact that it was not being used in 1830. It was not until the middle of the 1840’s that the felt-hat industry as it is known today, with its use of mercury nitrate, was founded.
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Posted: 18 October 2017 03:12 AM   [ Ignore ]   [ # 9 ]
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Logophile - 17 October 2017 11:30 PM

It might have been a trade but hats were first manufactured in England about 1510…

That’s an absurd statement. Hats have been made in England since time immemorial. And has Syntinen Laulu points out above, the London hatter’s guild dates to the 14th century.

Furthermore, the only hatmaking that contained mercury were felt hats, which were apparently first manufactured in France in the 17th century and later in England.

Again, quite wrong. Felt hats have been around for centuries before that. Finding new sources of felt (mainly beaver) was a major impetus of exploration of North America since the early 17th century when European supplies became hard to find. The manufacture of hats was banned in England’s North American colonies in 1731 in order to protect the English felt-hat industry.

Gardner (Dodgson 1960) has pointed out that the phrases “mad as a hatter” and “mad as a March hare’ were in common use in Carroll’s time and that “mad as a hatter” may have been a play on the cockney corruption “mad as an adder.” He suggests, however, that it “...more likely owes its origin to the fact that until recently hatters actually did go mad...” Writing in 1960, Gardner may be referring to the 20th century, since Thackrah failed to note the characteristic erethism of mercury poisoning in hatters in the 1830’s, and the mercurial secretage may not have been reintroduced into England until the late 1850’s (Taylor 1875). Between then and 1865 the symptoms of mercury poisoning in hatters could have been known but could hardly have become a by-word.

He points out, in consonance with Gardner’s statement that the expression “mad as a hatter” was in common use in England during the middle of the 19th century, that the expression appears in Chapter 10 of Thackerah’s Pendennis, which was published in 1850. Thackrah’s failure to note the use of mercury nitrate in the hat industry supports the fact that it was not being used in 1830. It was not until the middle of the 1840’s that the felt-hat industry as it is known today, with its use of mercury nitrate, was founded.

This is a random site quoting (accurately?) from a 1972 book of uncertain quality. The site has not reproduced the citations for the works it refers to. I saw it and dismissed it as unreliable.

What is not clear is when mercury started to be used in hat-making. I have yet to find any reliable sources on that.

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Posted: 18 October 2017 03:43 AM   [ Ignore ]   [ # 10 ]
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hats were first manufactured in England about 1510

Did they fall from the sky like manna prior to that?

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Posted: 18 October 2017 04:12 AM   [ Ignore ]   [ # 11 ]
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The Hat Act of 1732 (5 Geo II. c. 22):

Whereas...considerable quantities of hats manufactured in this kingdom have heretofore been exported to his Majesty’s plantations or colonies in America, who have been wholly supplied with hats from Great Britain; and whereas great quantities of hats have of late years been made, and said manufacture in daily increasing to the British plantations in America, and is from thence exported to foreign markets, which were heretofore supplied from Great Britain...be it enacted by the king’s most excellent Majesty, by and with the advice and consent of the Lords Spiritual and Temporal, and Commons in this present Parliament assembled...no hats or felts whatsoever, dyed or undyed, finished or unfinished, shall be shipt, loaden, or put on board any ship or vessel in any place or parts within any of the British plantations...to the intent and purpose to be exported, transported, shipped off, carried, or conveyed out of any of the said British plantations to any other of the British plantations, or to any other place whatsoever…

George II, June 1, 1732

This should put to rest any idea that felt hats were not manufactured in England prior to 1830. The act was passed for the express purpose of protecting the English felt-hat industry from colonial imports.

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Posted: 18 October 2017 08:48 AM   [ Ignore ]   [ # 12 ]
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OP Tipping - 18 October 2017 03:43 AM

hats were first manufactured in England about 1510

Did they fall from the sky like manna prior to that?

Most likely exported.

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Posted: 18 October 2017 09:50 AM   [ Ignore ]   [ # 13 ]
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Most likely exported.

Are you still clinging to your idea after it’s been comprehensively refuted?

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Posted: 18 October 2017 10:01 AM   [ Ignore ]   [ # 14 ]
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Thought I’d seen this thoroughly discussed here before, but it was on the Straightdope forum.
Straight Dope Thread 2001

End result is not in any way conclusive but at least there are some great references and ideas.

I see shades of TWNY in this; Everyone is trying to find a factual/reality basis for some theory or other, where of course so long as there was some idea that hatters were mad, even without evidence, the phrase could stick.

Or maybe it was just another random noun to finish “as mad as a...”

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Posted: 18 October 2017 11:54 PM   [ Ignore ]   [ # 15 ]
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It might have been a trade but hats were first manufactured in England about 1510…

That’s an absurd statement. Hats have been made in England since time immemorial. And has Syntinen Laulu points out above, the London hatter’s guild dates to the 14th century.

I am not the provenance of that statement, nevertheless I don’t understand why it’s an absurd assertion. Furthermore, the London hatter’s guild was granted guild status by the Royal Charter in 1667.  Another source says that the London Hatter’s Guild seems to have been founded about 1510. Two to three hundred years later than the 14th century.

Hats, first make by a Swiss at Paris, 1404. …
Hats were first manufactured in England by Spaniards in 1510.

This date and declaration has been recognized by all the sources below and perhaps many more.

Haydn’s Dictionary of Dates
Harper’s Book of Facts, A Classified Encyclopedia of the History of the World. From 4004 B.C. to 1906 A.D.  Charlton T. Lewis, Ph.D. Formerly Professor at the State Normal University of Illinois and at Troy University, and Lecturer at Yale, Harvard, Cornell Universities, Etc. Etc.
Harvard College Library
The New International Encyclopedia

WikipediA

Hatmaking was established in north Cheshire and south-east Lancashire by the 16th century.

The Book of English Trades, and Library of the useful arts.

How far the manufacture of hats was practiced on the Continent before they were made in England we cannot say, but we learn that in the beginning of the reign of Henry the Eighth, Spanish felt hats were made in England, by Spaniards and Dutchmen.

Furthermore, the only hatmaking that contained mercury were felt hats, which were apparently first manufactured in France in the 17th century and later in England.

Again, quite wrong. Felt hats have been around for centuries before that.

But not hats that contained mercury.

WikiPediA

Use of mercury in hatmaking is thought to have been adopted by the Huguenots in 17th-century France,[13][19] at a time when the dangers of mercury exposure were already known. This process was initially kept a trade secret in France, where hatmaking rapidly became a hazardous occupation. At the end of the 17th century the Huguenots carried the secret to England, following the revocation of the Edict of Nantes. During the Victorian era the hatters’ malaise became proverbial, as reflected in popular expressions like “mad as a hatter” (see below) and “the hatters’ shakes”.[13][19][20]
The first description of symptoms of mercury poisoning among hatters appears to have been made in St Petersburg, Russia, in 1829.[10] I

Note that all those sources, excluding Wikipedia,, were obtained from Google books; therefore, I could not copy and paste, I had to type all the information.

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