Monday, April 19, 2010

Mad as a Dormouse?

Why is it that the “Mad Hatter” gets such a bad rap?  In fact, he was no madder than anyone else at the March Hare’s Mad Tea Party—or in all of Wonderland, for that matter.  In Lewis Carroll’s Alice in Wonderland, the Cheshire Cat tells Alice that the March Hare and the Hatter are both mad.  In fact, says the Cat, “we’re all mad here.  I’m mad.  You’re mad.”  And yet it’s only the Hatter, not the Cheshire Cat, the March Hare, or the Dormouse, who is always mentioned with the sobriquet “mad.”  In fact, we sometimes use the idiom “mad as a hatter.”

Over the years the Hatter has been brought to life by a variety of impersonators, including  Ed Wynn, Edward Everett Horton, Hedda Hopper, Martin Short, Anthony Newley, and now, to satisfy the myriad literary scholars who have been clamoring for his interpretation, Johnny Depp. Most characterizations portray “mad” as “eccentric,” rather than “angry,” but the phrase “mad as a hatter” is used to mean both.

The idiom predates Alice in Wonderland, by nearly thirty years at least. It was used in Thomas Halliburton’s The Clockmaker, published in 1837.  The origin of the phrase is unclear.  Some say it was originally “mad as an adder.” Webster says “hatter” is just an intensifier, probably used because it rhymes (sort of) with madder.  Pat Ryan in a recent New York Times article suggests half-heartedly that the original phrase was adapted from the French il raisonne comme un huître—“he reasons like an oyster.” 

The best bet by most etymologists is that the phrase derived from the fact that hatmakers in the nineteenth century used mercurious nitrate to cure felt, and the constant exposure to the substance gave them what were called “hatter’s shakes,” uncontrollable twitching, and in severe cases, blurred vision, slurred speech, and hallucinations.  Hence, if someone acted strangely or violently, that person was said to be “mad” (in whatever sense) “as a hatter.”

Those who move in poetic circles (even though they may become somewhat dizzy) are familiar with another idiom—“bad as the Bard of Buffalo Bayou.”  Here’s why.

               Mad as a hatter,
            Blind as a bat,
            Sad as a batter
            Whose average is flat.

            Light as a feather,
            Smart as a fox,
            Tougher than leather,
            Strong as an ox,

            Deaf as a post,           
            Drunk as a lord,
            White as a ghost,
            Stiff as a board,

            Big as a house,
            Hard as a brick,
            Quiet as a mouse,
            Tight as a tick,

            Slow as a snail
            Clear as a bell,           
            Thin as a rail,
            Hotter than hell,
            Trite as a simile
            That’s now a cliché,
            Yet soldiers on grimly,
            As plain as the day.


  1. Once again the big bad bard tickles my fancy.

    I hope I spelled that right.

  2. Mercury was used in hats to make them stiff. Repeated use of mercury by hatters meant that it got into their blood, and eventually it drove them insane. Thus, "Mad as a Hatter" reflects the fact that members of this profession los their sanity due to mercury poisoning.