In the course of a (distressing) NY Times article (by Greg Winter) about the increasing numbers of American students acting like jackasses abroad, the following puzzling locution occurs [NB: grammar fixed thanks to a comment by elck]:

“That will eliminate the student who goes to Australia and just hangs out on the beach and drinks beer,” said David Macey, director of off-campus study at Middlebury. “It will probably clean up virtually all hats.

I have no idea what the sentence I’ve bolded means; can anyone inform me? For obvious reasons, I’m particularly interested in this usage. (Thanks to Bonnie for the link.)

Update. I think MollKW, in the comments, has cleaned up this hat:

The initial “t” of “that” was dropped as a typo (a common enough one, as Googling for “all hat” shows) and they ran a spelling/grammar check without being too careful about proofreading. Experiment shows that the grammar checker in Microsoft Word by default corrects “This will clean up virtually all hat” to “… virtually all hats”.

QED, and bravo!


  1. Perhaps it’s short for hattifnat?

  2. I cannot fathom what the phrase might mean either, though I do know that I’m discomfited by his use of “eliminate” earlier in the sentence.
    And thou, O Hat, to whom I defer in all matters gramatically, thou also do now occasion discomfiture in me.
    Your introductory sentence reads a little bit weird, and I suppose I might have ended the sentence, not as you did, but with “is a quote which contains the following puzzling locution”.
    And, since we’re being picayune, is “bold” now a verb? I bet the answer is “yes”, to which I have a ready retort: it’s ugly.
    But as my father is fond of saying, he who will dine with the devil must bring a long spoon; so, I don’t insist on any of my niggly points.

  3. You’re quite right about the first sentence; I was wavering between two constructions and did not sufficiently preview. I’ll see what I can do.
    As for the verb “bold,” it’s a term of art in the editing trade; I guess I’m so used to it by now that I don’t notice its ugliness.

  4. And, see, I said “gramatically” when I meant “gramatical”.
    I never ever have a sufficiently long spoon!

  5. “Fears of terrorism notwithstanding, more American students are expected to study abroad this year than ever […]”

    And it is the _students_ whose geopolitical ignorance is under fire! One wonders, in the sense of not wondering at all, where they get it.

  6. At night, all hats are black.
    Sorry, I have no idea what he’s talking about.

  7. Horrible American Transfer Students? (I’m just guessing, here, but it seems plausible.)

  8. Double “m”s all around, of course. Christ.
    I promise to quit.

  9. Could it mean something like changing “black hats” (=bad guys) into “white hats” (=good guys)? Though I always thought black hats were dyed in the felt….

  10. It means “types of people” in that context.

  11. Can’t we get past this “meaning” thing and concentrate on the pleasingly gnomic quality of the utterance?
    C’mon, LH, just roll it around on your tongue a while.
    “It will probably clean up virtually all hats.”
    Shades of John Ashberry.

  12. It does sound like an Ashbery line, now that you mention it.
    I’m starting to think it may be a typo (if it were jargon, surely one of my Diverse Readers would have explained it), but I can’t think what the intended word might have been.

  13. Like I said, it means “types of people”

  14. Is that a serious definition? If so, 1) how does it make sense here, and 2) do you have any links with other examples of this use?

  15. I hope this has nothing to do with de Bono, although I very much fear it may.

  16. Boring alternative theory: that it’s meant to say “It will probably clean up virtually all that”. The initial “t” of “that” was dropped as a typo (a common enough one, as Googling for “all hat” shows) and they ran a spelling/grammar check without being too careful about proofreading. Experiment shows that the grammar checker in Microsoft Word by default corrects “This will clean up virtually all hat” to “… virtually all hats”.

  17. Well done! I think the MS Word correction is as close to proof as we’re going to get (unless they actually correct the typo online), and I hereby award you the Grand Chapeau, with two feathers.

  18. scarabaeus stercus says

    how would ms deal with this:
    How honourable ladies sought my love,
    Which I denying, they fell sick and died;
    I could not do withal; then I’ll repent,
    And wish for all that, that I had not killed them;
    And twenty of these puny lies I’ll tell,

  19. I know it’s been cleared up already, but I chuckled to think he was shortening the slang term “asshat.”

  20. I object to MollkW’s benighted left-brain literalism.
    I had just started making plans to use this new, up-to-the-minue idiom.
    “Well, I guess the hats are clean NOW!”
    “We’ve had to clean a few hats this year, but in general it’s been pretty quiet”.
    “He was talking about cleaning my hat, but I guess I showed HIM!”
    “Sometimes the petty things you have to do as part of your job, cleaning hats and so on, just make you wonder whether it’s really worth it”.
    And on a contradictory note, maybe we should all send Bill Gates a hot wet kiss in gratitude for spellcheck, grammarcheck, and Mr. Paperclip Man.

  21. Clean hats all around!

  22. While accepting the convincing typo explanation, I for one plan to try to introduce this expression into common conversation. It does roll well on the tongue.

  23. I agree. Let’s see if we can get “cleaning hats” into the language.

  24. Rumsfeld:
    “We’re not perfect, but we’ve cleaned all hats. People everywhere want clean hats, and that’s what we’ve gone in and done. People who complain about ‘abraded brims’ don’t really understand how the United States Millinery does things: we’re clean, surgical and precise. Brims are always going to get abraded, but that’s been true of any millinery campaign since Alexander the Great. So, if that answers your question, all hats have been cleaned. Yes, the lady in the back”
    OK, I got carried away there, but what fun!

  25. Well steamed and blocked, sir!

  26. Thelonious says

    How insane. I’m leaving on study abroad in 2 weeks, I attend Kalamazoo College, and my girlfriend is going to the program in Erlangen, Germany, where she will be supervised by Wenda Focke.

  27. Kalamazoo College?
    How odd indeed: I got my first degree there.

  28. Kalamazoo College?
    How double odd endeed: my mom used to teach there.

  29. I think you all need your hats cleaned.

  30. You’re all wrong, as any reader of Madeline and the Bad Hat would know. 🙂
    As for the mal-spellchecked article itself, I’m torn between amusement at the idea that Americans are introducing the concept of excessive drinking to Europe — where, as we all know, the local languages have no vocabulary for drunkenness or hangovers, proving Sapir-Whorf once again — and thinking, WTF do these colleges expect?!
    The article isn’t very specific, but it sounds as though the programs having trouble are mostly the kind that export charter planes full of undergraduates together as a unit to live in their own little cultural bubble while they party down for a semester and pretend to study a light curriculum with an also-exported American instructor. Sending mobs of undergraduates anywhere, even across the street to buy a pizza, is a foolish proposition. And if you treat studying abroad like an extended spring break, then you’re going to get spring break behavior.
    If you’re going to run a study-abroad program — and by all means that should be a high priority in any undergraduate curriculum! — do it the old-fashioned way and make the kids earn a B+ average in six semesters of language courses first, plus some cultural studies on the side. Send them over in ones or twos to live and study with the locals. Emphasize immersion, not bonding with your fellow Americans abroad.
    That way when they get drunk and disorderly, they’ll do so in a culturally appropriate manner arm in arm with the local hooligans instead of exported American ones. (Besides, I hear jail is a really good place to tighten up your language skills.)

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