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At the drop of a hat

Q From Jim Riley: A friend recently said her daughter cries at the drop of a hat. Any idea where this comes from and what dropping a hat has to do with anything?

A Many dictionaries merely say that to do something at the drop of a hat is to do it at once, without any noticeable delay. But your example illustrates another common meaning — to do something or other at the slightest provocation.

Times are changing and a number of new studies point to an increasingly bolshie consumer willing to complain at the drop of a hat and spend time searching out the best value for money.

The Irish Times; 20 Mar. 2012. Bolshie refers to for somebody who is deliberately combative or uncooperative; it derives from Bolshevik.

In the days when men wore hats, their head coverings did more than just keep the sun or rain off — they were handy devices to signal with. You might have waved your hat in greeting or to demonstrate enthusiasm, thrown it in the air to mark a victory, raised it to acknowledge a passing acquaintance, thrown it into the ring to accept the challenge of a contest, or you might have dropped it as a signal. This last action is generally taken to be where at the drop of a hat came from. There’s little doubt about the matter, despite the regrettable failure of any early user to put its origin on record for us. All that’s left to do is work out what was being signalled.

It’s usually assumed that it indicated a formal fight was to begin. This is based on its supposedly being from the Wild West of the nineteenth century, when men were real men and fought each other incessantly with anything to hand, or with hands alone if not. The various editions of Brewer’s Dictionary of Phrase and Fable down to the present day comment that “The expression alludes to the American frontier practice of dropping a hat as a signal for a fight to begin, usually the only formality observed.”

The evidence suggests that this is no more than guesswork. Some old examples certainly do mention fighting:

I found many Old Soldiers, who called themselves Democrats, and were ready to fight, at the drop of a hat, with any man who had aught to say against Gen. Scott.

Milwaukee Daily Sentinel (Wisconsin), 19 Jul. 1852.

On the other hand, there are many that don’t, including most of the early ones. The earliest appearance on record that I know about is some way from the American frontier:

They could agree in the twinkling of an eye — at the drop of a hat — at the crook of a finger — to usurp the sovereign power; they cannot agree, in four months, to relinquish it.

Register of Debates in Congress, 12 Oct. 1837.

Another early one is at the opposite pole from fighting:

He fell in love (an excusable weakness!) with every pretty face he saw, and would have married, at the drop of a hat, any right merry girl that would have been silly enough to have had him.

Lonz Powers, or, The Regulators, by James Weir, 1850.

Brewer also notes that “races are sometimes started by the downward sweep of a hat”. This is at least an equally likely origin. I put in evidence a newspaper report from the other side of the Atlantic:

These men, both footmen of the West End, ran 200 yards for £10 a side, near the Swiss Cottage, St John’s Wood, on Monday. ... At the first signal (the drop of a hat) they bounded away, Deven leading at a rattling pace.

Bell’s Life In London, 12 Jan. 1851 6/3

However, my suggestion may be disregarded by critics for the same reason that I dislike the fighting origin — lack of explicit evidence.

The example of 1837 from the US Congress shows that even at this early date the expression was already idiomatic. Unless earlier records come to light we may never discover exactly what was in the minds of the people even further back in time who generated the idiom. What is certain is that it became a useful metaphor for immediate action at the slightest stimulus.

Page created 28 Apr. 2012

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Last modified: 28 April 2012.