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‘Mad as a Hatter’ – The History of a Simile – NYTimes.com

By PAT RYAN
Published: March 5, 2010

Is the Hatter mad?

Hatter-Sir John Tenniel/Rischgitz-Getty Images,1865

Hatter-Sir John Tenniel/Rischgitz-Getty Images,1865

Since 1865, when “Alice in Wonderland” was published, readers have quoted and parsed his every utterance. He’s called simply the Hatter in “Alice” and Hatta in “Through the Looking-Glass,” but we know he’s mad; the Cheshire-Cat tells us so.

Like the Cowardly Lion, the Mad Hatter is such a familiar figure that we’ve felt free to use his name without gleaning what afflicts him. His image has remained vivid, from the first book illustrations by Sir John Tenniel to Johnny Depp’s fleshed-out version in the Tim Burton movie that opened Friday.

But what did Lewis Carroll, a lover of riddles, mean by “mad”? The phrase “he’s mad as a hatter” was colloquial in Britain before “Alice.” Inquiries “respecting this simile” had appeared in the journal Notes & Queries, and in 1863 an answer, of sorts, was published, though its author was “at a loss to understand why a hatter should be made the type of insanity rather than a tailor or a shoemaker.” Readers were referred to the French phrase “Il raisonne comme une huitre” (“He reasons like an oyster”), suggesting that the French word for oyster, when Anglicized, may “have given occasion to the English ‘hatter.’” Hmm.

In the book, Alice herself finds the Hatter “dreadfully” puzzling; his remark “seemed to her to have no sort of meaning in it, and yet it was certainly English.”

Linguists and phraseologists have tried to pinpoint the simile’s origins. Eric Partridge, in his “Dictionary of Slang and Unconventional English,” concluded that Carroll “definitely fixed the English sense” of the phrase as “extremely eccentric.” (Mr. Partridge also dismissed “mad” for “angry” as an American notion, though, he said, hatter/attercop, or spider, “has some support in ‘mad as a bed-bug.’”)

Since Carroll was well known as a mathematician, logicians have looked to his writing and discovered a sympathetic mind under the Hatter hat: perhaps a Mad Adder.

Physicists have used Hatterian concepts, often citing this quotation: “‘If you knew Time as well as I do,’ said the Hatter, ‘you wouldn’t talk about wasting it. It’s him.’” The physicist Robert A. Millikan was quoted in 1932 as saying that the Hatter was not mad “when he gave to Time changeable, undependable, capricious qualities which we assign to personality,” and furthermore, “who is the nearer right — the Mad Hatter or the common-sense citizen?”

The Hatter is focused on time, understandably, since the Queen of Hearts has accused him of being a time-murderer. This has added heft to the theory that a top-hat wearing inventor, Theophilus Carter, was the inspiration. Mr. Carter had displayed his Alarm-Clock-Bed — which was supposed to tip the sleeper out at the correct time — at the Great Exhibition in Hyde Park in 1851.

Next we come to the notorious “hatters’ shakes,” a result of poisoning from mercury used in the early days of hat manufacturing. At a recent news conference, Johnny Depp suggested that that was where “mad as a Hatter” came from. The Hatter is “this guy who literally is damaged goods,” he said. In the British Medical Journal in 1983, however, H.A. Waldron concluded that the Hatter did not have mercury poisoning. The principal psychotic features of this type of poisoning are “excessive timidity, diffidence, increasing shyness, loss of self confidence, anxiety and a desire to remain unobserved and unobtrusive.” The Hatter, he states, was “an eccentric extravert.”

All of this fits the spirit of illogicism in “Alice.” In response to one textual query, Carroll answered: “I’m very much afraid I didn’t mean anything but nonsense! Still, you know, words mean more than we mean to express when we use them.”

He would have liked the Unreasoning Oyster.

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