The multifarious aldiboronti, in this Wordorigins thread, posted a quote from Charles Mackay’s Popular Delusions and the Madness of Crowds that I enjoyed so much I can’t resist passing it on:

What a shocking bad hat!” was the phrase that was next in vogue. No sooner had it become universal, than thousands of idle but sharp eyes were on the watch for the passenger whose hat shewed any signs, however slight, of ancient service. Immediately the cry arose, and, like the war-whoop of the Indians, was repeated by a hundred discordant throats. He was a wise man who, finding himself under these circumstances “the observed of all observers,” bore his honours meekly. He who shewed symptoms of ill-feeling at the imputations cast upon his hat, only brought upon himself redoubled notice. The mob soon perceive whether a man is irritable, and, if of their own class, they love to make sport of him. When such a man, and with such a hat, passed in those days through a crowded neighbourhood, he might think himself fortunate if his annoyances were confined to the shouts and cries of the populace. The obnoxious hat was often snatched from his head and thrown into the gutter by some practical joker, and then raised, covered with mud, upon the end of a stick, for the admiration of the spectators, who held their sides with laughter, and exclaimed in the pauses of their mirth, “Oh! what a shocking bad hat!” “What a shocking bad hat!” Many a nervous, poor man, whose purse could but ill spare the outlay, doubtless purchased a new hat before the time, in order to avoid exposure in this manner.
The origin of this singular saying, which made fun for the metropolis for months, is not involved in the same obscurity as that which shrouds the origin of Quoz and some others. There had been a hotly-contested election for the borough of Southwark, and one of the candidates was an eminent hatter. This gentleman, in canvassing the electors, adopted a somewhat professional mode of conciliating their good-will, and of bribing them without letting them perceive that they were bribed. Whenever he called upon or met a voter whose hat was not of the best material, or, being so, had seen its best days, he invariably said, “What a shocking bad hat you have got; call at my warehouse, and you shall have a new one!” Upon the day of election this circumstance was remembered, and his opponents made the most of it, by inciting the crowd to keep up an incessant cry of “What a shocking bad hat!” all the time the honourable candidate was addressing them. From Southwark the phrase spread over all London, and reigned for a time the supreme slang of the season.

(I have restored Mackay’s spelling, punctuation, and italics from an 1856 edition on Google Books.)


  1. “Whenever I find myself growing grim about the mouth; whenever it is a damp, drizzly November in my soul; whenever I find myself involuntarily pausing before coffin warehouses, and bringing up the rear of every funeral I meet; and especially whenever my hypos get such an upper hand of me, that it requires a strong moral principle to prevent me from deliberately stepping into the street, and methodically knocking people’s hats off — then, I account it high time to get to sea as soon as I can.”

  2. Yay!! At last an article about hats!

  3. marie-lucie says

    Of course, Mr Hat would never have found himself dehatted.

  4. If only we’d known when we were boys: then we could have filled the Saturday morning cinema with cries of “What a shocking badhat!”.

  5. A fine specimen of an early Internet-style meme.

  6. J.W. Brewer says

    Did the other candidate in the election attract the votes of the local prescriptivists who thought it should have been “shockingly bad hat”?

  7. All your shocking bad hats are belong to us.

  8. Jan Freeman says

    And let’s not forget “That’s some bad hat, Harry!” or the immortal lines from “Go Dog Go”: “Do you like my hat?” “I do not.” “Goodbye.”

  9. “Have you read my books?”
    “I have not, my Lord. You write much faster than I am able to read.”

  10. This is exactly what goes on at 4chan.org.

  11. Jan — we’ve had to stop reading that book before bedtime in my house because my son finds the exchange so ridiculously funny that we can’t get past that page.

  12. Lord Abbott’s coronet was far too small,
    So small, that as he sauntered down White Hall
    Even the youthful Proletariat
    (Who probably mistook it for a Hat)
    Remarked on its exiguous extent.
    Here is a picture of the incident.

  13. From that same book, we find that “Has your mother sold her mangle?” had a similar degree of popularity.

  14. Thanks for reviving this delightful thread!

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