G.K. Chesterton’s little essay “On Running After One’s Hat” is really a perfect languagehat link. Not only is it about (inter alia) hats, not only does it express very well one of my basic attitudes towards life (and one which makes me a much happier camper than many), but within its folds is nestled a very pearl of linguistic change at work. The two paragraphs that give the essay its name begin, wonderfully, “For instance, there is a current impression that it is unpleasant to have to run after one’s hat. Why should it be unpleasant to the well-ordered and pious mind?” The paragraph continues:
There is an idea that it is humiliating to run after one’s hat; and when people say it is humiliating they mean that it is comic. It certainly is comic; but man is a very comic creature, and most of the things he does are comic—eating, for instance. And the most comic things of all are exactly the things that are most worth doing—such as making love.
We are taken aback: the last sentence is true and apposite, but quite startling in so pious and conservative a writer as Chesterton. We begin to revise our opinion of him. Then we read on: “A man running after a hat is not half so ridiculous as a man running after a wife.” Of course—back then, “making love” meant “courting”! We cease revising our opinion, and commence savoring the dash of hot pepper that has entered the dish while the chef’s back was turned. [Via Chasing Hats, via Gideon Strauss.]