A woman one simply has to take one's hat off to - and then eat it

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Today I am pleased to welcome a guest writer, Mrs Ethel Rommel of the Millinery Museum in Yorkshire. This museum is one of the very few in the world devoted entirely to headgear, and Mrs Rommel (no relation) has made a lifelong study of the influence of hats and caps on the English language. Today she answers all your queries.

Where does the expression "madcap" come from, as in "madcap exploits"?

Mrs Rommel writes: There has always been a close correlation between the brain and the thing which covers the brain, ie the hat or cap, so in popular parlance it is quite common to transfer characteristics of one to the other. That is, when we think someone is a bit cracked, we say he is a "madcap". When we want someone to buck their ideas up, we tell him to "get his thinking cap" on. We don't really think that the cap can think. We are just lending the cap qualities associated with ...

Yes, yes, yes - I get the idea. But we don't call female intellectuals anything like that, do we? We call them "blue stockings". Why do we call them "blue stockings" and not "blue hats" or something?

Mrs Rommel writes: Ah, now that is slightly outside my subject. That's a stocking question. If you really want to know, I can give you the address of Mrs Jane Mauleverer, my counterpart at the Sock and Stocking Collection ...

Er, no, thank ... Why do we say, "If the cap fits, wear it"?

Mrs Rommel writes: Because it is silly to wear a hat that is too tight or too loose.

No, I mean, why have we enshrined it in a proverb ? Why not, if the shoe fits, wear it, or, if the shirt fits, wear it ?

Mrs Rommel writes: Many proverbs deal with different activities, and it tends to even out. After all, we also say "You've made your bed and you must lie on it," or "You can't have your cake and eat it," and we at Millinery House don't grumble that the bed people and cake people have got there first. If you would like to know more, I can give you the address of the Bed Collection, or the Cake Heritage Centre ...

No, thank you very much. Tell me though, why do we say that somebody has been knocked into a cocked hat?

Mrs Rommel writes: We don't.

Don't we?

Mrs Rommel writes: No. Not any more. Research shows that this expression has more or less died out.

Oh. Well, what about "throwing your hat in the ring"?

Mrs Rommel writes: Yes, that's still current. As you know, it means to enter a competition. Especially one that involves throwing hats into a ring.

Has there ever been such a thing?

Mrs Rommel writes: No. But you must remember that the hat is the most instantly removable item of clothing that we possess, and therefore the quickest to symbolise things. That's why we say that a footballer has been "capped for England". That's why we "pass the hat round" when we are collecting. You wouldn't pass the coat round. Or say that someone has been trousered for England. Would you?

No, but you do talk about someone flying by the seat of his pants, don't you ?

Mrs Rommel writes: How very true. If you want further information, why not write to the Trouser Information Centre, at Bipedal House, London W1?

Yes, I might. And there again, I might not. Why is it called a bowler?

Mrs Rommel writes: Why is what called a bowler?

A bowler hat.

Mrs Rommel writes: Ah. It is so named after John Bowler, a London hatter.

Why is it called a derby in America?

Mrs Rommel writes: Because the Americans are not democratic like us and prefer to name things after aristocrats.

In this case, Lord Derby?

Mrs Rommel writes: Very good. Did you know, by the way, that the French word for bowler is "Chapeau melon" or "Melon hat"?

Named after a hatter called Jean Melon, no doubt? Or perhaps endowed by the Mellon Foundation?

Mrs Rommel writes: No. The French simply thought it resembled a melon. You can always learn more by writing to the Fresh Fruit Foundation ...

Ah!! I didn't see that one coming! Very good! You pulled the wool over my eyes there! Incidentally, is that a hat expression?

Mrs Rommel writes: No. It is a sheep expression. Why not write to ...?

No, thanks. Well, I've enjoyed this very much, but I haven't learnt a thing. If you haven't been talking through your hat, I'll ...

Mrs Rommel writes: Eat your hat?

Exactly.

If you want to know more about headgear and language, write to anyone you like but not us.

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