Mad Hatters

Culture, Language, The Environment


Listening to an NPR show on new legislation to regulate mercury, I heard this:

Mad as a hatter. Years ago mercury was used to stiffen fur in hat making, but it also got into the nervous systems of hatters and made many of them act crazy. Now in the face of evidence that even small amounts of the metal are harmful, the Bush administration is getting close to regulating mercury emissions from power plants.

The implication (although it is never explicitly stated) is that the Mad Hatter from Alice in Wonderland got his name from a phrase which had its origins in an peculiar historical phenomenon. But, I wondered, is true? Did the phrase come from a rash of Mad Hatters? Well, after some searching on Google, I still don’t know definitively one way or the other. Initially, support for the mercury poisoned hatter theory looked strong:

Hatters really did go mad. The chemicals used in hat-making included mercurous nitrate, used in curing felt. Prolonged exposure to the mercury vapors caused mercury poisoning. Victims developed severe and uncontrollable muscular tremors and twitching limbs, called hatter’s shakes”; other symptoms included distorted vision and confused speech. Advanced cases developed hallucinations and other psychotic symptoms.

The popular top hat of the time were made from beaver fur, but cheaper ones used furs such as rabbit instead. A complicated set of processes was needed to turn the fur into a finished hat. With the cheaper sorts of fur, one step was to brush a solution of mercurous nitrate on to the fur to roughen the fibres and make them mat more easily, a process called carroting because it made the fur turn orange. Beaver fur had natural serrated edges that made this unnecessary, one reason why it was preferred, but the cost and scarcity of beaver meant that other furs had to be used.

… On December 2, 1955 the New York Times ran a full-column story, with a dateline from Danbury, Connecticut and headlines: 600 Hatters Mark 1941 Nitrate Ban.” The story notes that The occasion was the 14th anniversary of the outlawing of the use of nitrate of mercury in the hat industry.” This notable event had come to pass since On December 1, 1941, the United States Public Health Service brought an end to mercury’s use by hat manufacturers in 26 states through mutual agreements.” Credit for this achievement was claimed in whole or in part by the Public Health Service, the hat manufacturers, and the secretary-treasurer of the local union of United Hatters, Cap and Millinery Workers. Cynics have suggested that credit for this triumph” should be attributed to a war-time shortage of mercury. For close to a century prior to 1955, the ravages of mercurialism among hatters had been known and tolerated in the United States.

But then here is what Snopes has to say:

Even though there exists a strong tie between mercury poisoning and strange behavior in those long-ago hatters, it’s still more than likely the term we now toss about so casually did not spring from this combination. Phrases such as mad as a March hare, mad as a buck, mad as Maybutter, and mad as a wet hen are older than mad as a hatter, leaving open the conclusion that hatter is but a variation of an existing term. (Interestingly, these other phrases pull in different directions, with mad as a March hare signifying odd or eccentric behavior, while mad as a wet hen characterizes anger.)

The Straight Dope takes this as a departure on to the behavior of March hares:

As long as we’re off the subject, the expression mad as a March hare” refers to the frenzied capers of the male hare during March, its mating season. Evan Morris of The Word Detective says, Of course, the hare’s behavior probably only appears strange to us–we can only guess how our human courtship rituals might appear to a rabbit. In any case, March Hares can’t be entirely bonkers because, after all, every summer brings a new crop of baby hares.”

Martin Gardner, author of the wonderful Annotated Alice, reports that two British scientists (Anthony Holley and Paul Greenwood, in Nature, June 7, 1984) made extensive observations of the behaviors of hares in the spring, and found no evidence that male hares go into a frenzy during the March rutting season. They concluded that the main courtship behavior of male hares during the entire breeding period (many months) is chasing females and then boxing with them. Behavior in March is no different from any other month.

Of course, this would not be the first time that popular beliefs and scientific observation don’t jibe, nor where popular beliefs have lead to common expressions that are not scientifically verifiable.

Apparently Erasmus (1466?-1536), the Dutch Renaissance scholar and theologian, wrote the expression mad as marsh hare,” and there is now some speculation that this got corrupted to March” in later decades. However, long before Carroll was writing, the expression was mad as a March Hare,” regardless of scientific validity.

Finally, from Snopes again, there is the alternative theory that the phrase derives from mad adders”:

Moreover, mad at that time had more than a few meanings: off the rocker” and angry,” but also venomous,” which suggests yet another twist in the game. According to A Dictionary of Common Fallacies:

Lewis Carroll with his penchant for linguistic games presumably knew perfectly well that his Mad Hatter’ meant a venomous adder’, but since his readers may have been misled by Tenniel’s drawings, it should be pointed out that 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’.

Supporting the adder” theory comes this snippet from a 1901 book:

In the Anglo-Saxon the word mad’ was used as a synonym for violent, furious, angry, or venomous. In some parts of England and in the United States particularly, it is still used in this sense. Atter’ was the Anglo-Saxon name for an adder, or viper. The proverbial saying has therefore probably no reference to hat-makers, but merely means as venomous as an adder.’ The Germans call the viper Natter.’” — Edwards’s Words, Facts, and Phrases.

OK. I have some real work to do …

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