Mad as a hatter

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"Mad as a hatter" is a colloquial English phrase used in conversation to suggest (lightheartedly) that a person is suffering from insanity. It is believed to emanate from Denton and Stockport, Greater Manchester, where men in the area worked predominantly in the hattery business, which used mercury in the hat making process. The accumulation of mercury in the body causes symptoms similar to madness. The earliest known appearance of the phrase in print is in an 1829 issue of Blackwood's Edinburgh Magazine.


The origin of the saying may derive from:

  • Mercury poisoning of hat-makers – A popular explanation of the phrase suggests that it was connected to mercury poisoning or Korsakoff's syndrome[dubious ] experienced by hat-makers as a result of the long-term use of mercury products in the hat-making trade.[1][2] In 18th and 19th century England, mercury was used in the production of felt, which was used in the manufacturing of hats common of the time. A late 19th-century example of the effect occurred with hatters in Danbury, Connecticut who developed a condition known locally as the Danbury Shakes. The condition was characterized by slurred speech, tremors, stumbling, and, in extreme cases, hallucinations.[3]
  • An incidence of nominalization of the verb hatter, which means "To harass; to weary; to wear out with fatigue." according to Samuel Johnson's A Dictionary of the English Language published in 1755. In the text he cites a passage from the work of John Dryden as an example of usage: "He's hatter'd out with pennance."[4]
  • Roger Crab, a 17th-century hermit who, after working for a short time as a hatter, gave all his goods to the poor and wore homemade sackcloth clothes.[1] Although this was presaged by political and religious radicalism, and was followed by a long married life.[5]
  • An adaptation of the Anglo-Saxon word atter meaning poison, closely related to the word adder for the poisonous Crossed Viper. Lexicographers William and Mary Morris in Morris Dictionary of Word and Phrase Origins (1977) favour this derivation because "mad as a hatter" was known before hat making was a recognized trade.[1] According to A Dictionary of Common Fallacies (1980), "'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'."

Historical significance[edit]

Abraham Lincoln was shot by John Wilkes Booth, and Booth was shot by Boston Corbett. Corbett spent his early life as a hat maker, and it is believed that the effects of his early life job affected his decision-making for his future. He was considered "mad as a hatter" for going against orders when he had Booth cornered in a barn in Virginia, and shooting Booth instead of taking him alive. After investigation, Corbett was forgiven for his disobedience, but left the army and went back to hat making. After a few years, Corbett was even more mad than people had once thought, and he was thrown into an insane asylum. Corbett managed to escape, and he was never seen again.[6]

Early uses[edit]

In a section of the January–June 1829 issue of Blackwood's Edinburgh Magazine, headed Noctes Ambrocianæ. No. XL1V, there is a conversation between a group of fictional characters:

NORTH: Many years – I was Sultan of Bello for a long period, until dethroned by an act of the grossest injustice; but I intend to expose the traitorous conspirators to the indignation of an outraged world.

TICKLER (aside to SHEPHERD.): He's raving.
SHEPHERD (to TICKLER.): Dementit.

ODOHERTY (to both.): Mad as a hatter. Hand me a segar.[7][8]

Canadian author Thomas Chandler Haliburton used the phrase twice in his 1835 book The clockmaker; or the sayings and doings of Samuel Slick of Slickville: "And with that he turned right round, and sat down to his map and never said another word, lookin' as mad as a hatter the whole blessed time" and "Father he larfed out like any thing; I thought he would never stop – and sister Sall got right up and walked out of the room, as mad as a hatter. Says she, Sam, I do believe you are a born fool, I vow."[7][9]

See also[edit]


  1. ^ a b c Rees, Nigel (1987). Why Do We Say ...?. ISBN 0-7137-1944-3.
  2. ^ Barbara Mikkelson (13 July 2007). "Mad As a Hatter". Retrieved 6 September 2009.
  3. ^ Mercury Workshop, p. 23, Ohio Indoor Air Quality Coalition, 2008. "In the late 1800s hat makers, or hatters, used to use mercury nitrate when working with beaver fur to make felt. Over time, the hatters started exhibiting apparent changes in personality and also experienced tremors or shaking. Mercury poisoning attacks the nervous system, causing drooling, hair loss, uncontrollable muscle twitching, a lurching gait, and difficulties in talking and thinking clearly. Stumbling about in a confused state with slurred speech and trembling hands, affected hatters were sometimes mistaken for drunks. The ailment became known as 'The Danbury Shakes' in the community of Danbury where hat making was a major industry. In very severe cases, they experienced hallucinations. The term “mad as a hatter” may be a product of mercury toxicity. The practice did not completely stop until 1943."
  4. ^ Johnson, Samuel (2005). A Dictionary of the English Language: An Anthology. Penguin. p. 289. ISBN 0-14-144157-7.
  5. ^ The Bloodless Revolution. pp. 26–38. ISBN 0-393-05220-6.
  6. ^ "Where did the phrase "mad as a hatter" come from?". Retrieved 2017-10-24.
  7. ^ a b Gary Martin. "As mad as a hatter". Retrieved 6 September 2009.
  8. ^ Original text by Project Gutenberg.
  9. ^ Original text by Google Books