As mad as a hatter

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As mad as a hatter : Phrases

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That's more than fifty years after the first printed and so seems unlikely to be the origin. It's more likely that antipodean miners were called hatters because they were mad than the other way about.

Whilst not being the source of the phrase, we can't mention 'as mad as a hatter' and leave out Lewis Carroll. His 'Hatter' character from Alice's Adventures in Wonderland (1865) is of course the best-known mad hatter of them all. The Hatter is not actually described as mad in the story - merely a participant at 'a mad tea-party' - although he can hardly be called sane.

It would also be remiss to leave out the fact that mercury, which we now know to be highly toxic, was used in the manufacture of hats. Hatters commonly suffered from 'hatter's shakes', a form of nerve damage which gave symptoms similar to Parkinson's Disease and which is still known today as 'Mad Hatter's Syndrome'. A neurotoxicologist correspondent of mine has put forward the view that hatters could have been mad in either or both of the 'angry' or 'insane' senses. He states that "Mercury exposure can cause aggressiveness, mood swings, and anti-social behaviour. It is therefore likely that the mercury in hat making did lead to 'mad' hatters both in terms of rationality and plain old grumpiness."

Carroll may have taken his inspiration for the Mad Hatter from the known unusual behaviour of hatters and also from Theophilus Carter, who was an Oxford cabinet maker and furniture dealer with a reputation for eccentric behaviour. The cap, or in Carter's case the top hat, certainly fits. He was something of a 'mad inventor' and came up with the alarm-clock bed, which woke people by tipping the bed over. Carroll would have been familiar with the sight of Carter, in full top hat, outside his shop at 48 High Street, Oxford, where he lived in the 1850s - during the time that Carroll was an Oxford don.

Similes of the form 'as x as y' are extremely commonplace in English. They almost invariably link an object with a property that it is well-known to possess, e.g. 'as white as snow', 'as slippery as an eel' etc. Whoever coined this term would certainly have had reason to associate hatters with madness. Whether they meant hatters or adders and considered them to be annoyed or crazy, we don't know. Until we do, the derivation of 'as mad as a hatter' remains uncertain.

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