I recently reread the brilliant New Yorker piece by Jack Winter titled “How I Met My Wife,” as I prepared for a short radio segment about negative words that don’t have positive counterparts. Winter plays with dozens of “missing” positive words in the short essay, from “shevelled,” “gruntled,” and “chalant” to “persona grata” and “sung hero.”
The following sentence in Winter’s column prompted me to wonder, for the first time, about the origins of “old hat”:
Nevertheless, since this was all new hat to me and I had no time to prepare a promptu speech, I was petuous.
I turned to the Oxford English Dictionary, which first cites the phrase in 1697 and provides the following definition:
1. slang. The vulva. Also: sexual intercourse; a woman regarded as a means of sexual gratification. Now arch. and rare.
I can’t see your face right now, but I’m guessing you were as taken aback by this definition as I was. Who knew that this now gender-neutral and relatively innocuous expression had such taboo origins?
My next thought: I’m never using that expression again.
The historian of the language in me, though, piped up and asked: Why can’t you let the expression ameliorate and lose its derogatory meanings? It’s tempting in a case like this to fall into the etymological fallacy and argue that the phrase’s past meanings continue to determine or at least inflect its current meaning, and so the phrase is forever tainted. But a phrase means what it means in current use, and OED gets the current meaning right with its second definition:
2. colloq. In predicative use: something considered to be old-fashioned, out of date, unoriginal, or hackneyed.
The first citation in the OED of this meaning is from 1911, in Sir Arthur Thomas Quiller-Couch’s Brother Copas:
Men have … put it, with like doctrines, silently aside in disgust. So it has happened with Satan and his fork: they have become ‘old hat’.
The OED describes the phrase’s origins as unknown, dismissing (undoubtedly correctly) the origin proposed by Francis Grose under the headword “hat” in A Classical Dictionary of the Vulgar Tongue (1796) as facetious: “Old hat; a woman’s privities: because frequently felt.”
I have seen the argument that the present-day meaning of “old hat” is not connected to the older, taboo meaning, but I think the evidence suggests otherwise. The OED cites the sexual definition of the phrase in J.S. Farmer’s and W.E. Henley’s Slang and Its Analogues in 1893, less than 20 years before the first citation of its use to refer to something out-of-date or hackneyed. In other words, the sexual meaning wasn’t fully archaic yet.
Then there is this song that I found in the book A Collection of Songs, With Some Originals, published in Dublin in 1769 (and not cited in the OED). It is called “Chloe’s Old Hat,” and it captures how the sexual meaning of the phrase blurs into the current one by the end of the song, referring to anything that is “overly familiar” (to quote the American Heritage Dictionary). The song begins this way:
To Chloe young Damon had oft told his tale,
Yet o’er her strict virtue cou’d never prevail;
He prais’d her, he press’d her, he kiss’d and all that,
Yet she vow’d that he never should touch her Old Hat.
Touch her Old Hat, touch her Old Hat,
Yet she swore that he never should touch her Old Hat.
It happen’d he met her one day in a grove,
He press’d her, and told her again of his love;
But still she cried, fye sir, what wou’d you be at?
Do you think that you ever shall touch my Old Hat?
Touch my Old Hat, &c.
The next two stanzas describe Damon’s determination and Chloe’s protests. Then in a jarring and disturbing stanza, given Chloe’s continuing protests, Damon seems to force her to have sex. (The tone of the song, however, remains light, which is all the more jarring.) The song concludes:
The youth gain’d his point, and since the fair maid
Of Damon has not been so sorely afraid;
She seldom enquires what he would be at,
So he does what he pleases with Chloe’s Old Hat.
Chloe’s Old Hat, &c.
Ma’am Chloe affects now no more to be coy,
But willing as Damon to push for the joy;
Now Damon’s strong passion is grown somewhat flat,
Since he finds her’s as easy as any Old Hat.
Any Old Hat, any Old Hat,
Since he finds her’s as easy as any Old Hat.
While the phrase may be neutral now, the current meaning did not, I would argue, arise independently from its earlier, sexual meaning. Each of us then has the power to decide what to do with that knowledge.Return to Top