Q&A: Mad as a hatter

Each week here at the Australian Writers’ Centre, we dissect and discuss, contort and retort, ask and gasp at the English language and all its rules, regulations and ridiculousness. It’s a celebration of language, masquerading as a passive-aggressive whinge about words and weirdness. This week, we're breaking mad…

Q: Hi AWC, would you like a chocolate? There are 24 in this pack.

A: Um, but…

Q: Don’t be shy, just open the little doors.

A: Do you know how an Advent Calendar works?

Q: What does that have to do with this elaborate Frozen II-themed chocolate box?

A: Never mind. Did you have an actual question?

Q: Yes I did. It’s about the term “mad as a hatter” – I know it came from Alice in Wonderland, but do you know any more about why it caught on?

A: Actually, you’re wrong. The phrase did NOT originate in Lewis Carroll’s famous 1865 book, Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland.

Q: It didn’t? But, but, but the Mad Hatter??

A: Nope. By the way, the character was simply known as the Hatter – although he did get called mad, notably at the Tea-Party. Lewis Carroll never actually used the phrase “mad as a hatter” in his books – although clearly that was his inspiration.

Q: So, off the top of your head, where did it come from?

A: Cute. And it came from sick milliners.

Q: I guess if you had that much money you’d go a little loopy.

A: No, not millionaires – milliners, the term for hat makers. And it all had to do with how hats were made starting from the 17th century.

Q: I’m guessing not by factories in Asia.

A: Good guess. It started with the French, who used mercuric nitrate solution to help cure the felt lining on the inside of the hat. This worked a treat, oh except for the toxic mercury vapours that were given off.

Q: At which point they’d collapse “at the drop of a hat”?

A: Well, yes. But in all seriousness, “Mad Hatter disease” (also known as erethism) would cause the sufferer to experience shaking, dizziness, mental confusion, hallucinations and more. Nasty stuff.

Q: How long did it take for people to figure out it was the mercury?

A: Far too long, with widespread cases throughout the 1800s and the practice only finally ended in the 1940s – about 300 years after it first began.

Q: Wow, they sure kept that under their hat for a long time.

A: Groan.

Q: Any other fun facts?

A: Mad Hatter disease was also known as the Danbury Shakes, after the town of Danbury which for a time during the late 19th and early 20th centuries was the hat capital of the United States.

Q: “Mad as someone from Danbury” just doesn’t have the same ring to it.

A: True.

Q: I’m still recovering from the fact that it was dodgy chemistry rather than Lewis Carroll being responsible for the phrase.

A: But hats off to Carroll for writing it into his book, right?

Q: I’ll do the hat puns around here thank you.

A: Sorry. Although, speaking of Carroll – you might think his book was at least the origin of the phrase, “mad as a March hare”. But again no, that one had been around since the 16th century, relating to how hares would go mad in March – the first month of breeding season.

Q: They breed like rabbits apparently.

A: Indeed.

Q: Wait, surely “grinning like a Cheshire Cat” came from the book?

A: Again, no. It seemed that Carroll didn’t coin any of these. Rather, the characters themselves were based on the phrases and not the other way around.

Q: Well I think it’s time to head off. Hats all folks!

If you have a grammar gripe or punctuation puzzle that you’d like our Q&A to explore, email it to us today!

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