Where Did The Term 'Mad As A Hatter' Come From?

Originally written by Pat Ryan for The New York Times Photo: Film Shaft Since 1865, when “Alice in Wonderland” was published, readers h...



Originally written by Pat Ryan for The New York Times
Photo: Film Shaft


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.

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.”

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.

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.


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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