old hat

Jonathan Lighter wuxxmupp2000 at YAHOO.COM
Fri Mar 3 22:16:52 UTC 2006

Just yesterday I found a mid-nineteenth century "old hat" in the title of a British broadside ballad. Within the past 24 hours it naturally has submerged into a pile of other papers that I'm too lazy (see earlier post) to dig out and leaf through.

  George is right about the "c1900" ex. in HDAS. It's from a nineteenth-century ballad, unbelievably scandalous in its time, which if performed today would result in yawns, slack jaws, and tedium-induced eye-rolling.

  In other words, standard teen behavior.


  JLGeorge Thompson <george.thompson at NYU.EDU> wrote:
  ---------------------- Information from the mail header -----------------------
Sender: American Dialect Society
Poster: George Thompson
Subject: old hat

Another tidbit from the underground newspapers.

The OED has "old hat" (the vulva or vagina), with cites dated 1697,
1699, 1743 (H. Fielding) 1796 (Grose), 1893 (F&H), and 1952 (US); HDAS
adds 1888 (US), and corrects the 1952 (US) cite to "a1900" -- it's
taken from a dissertation, one which from the title certainly seems to
have been a collection of folksongs done at the folklore program at U
Grose explains the semantics of this terms by noting that an old hat
and a vulva may both be "frequently felt".
I notice the nearly 100 year gap in the OED's citations between 1796
and 1893, and that both these are from dictionaries. The OED's entry
must have been recently re-edited, but for some reason it did not pick
up HDAS's 1888 cite, which is free-range. The following is another U.
S. appearance, from 45 years earlier, and is also free-range:

*** The depression in the various branches of female trade has driven
many amorous girls to the pave, they thinking, previous to embracing
the damnable vocation, that it is a charming life, full of fun,
pleasure, and devoid of all trouble. But this BARGAINING FOR OLD HAT
isn't what it is cracked up to be, which they learn to their
disagreeable disappointment after a trial.
NY Sporting Whip, February 25, 1843, (III:5), p. 1, col. 2.

This is from a very amusing front page feature called "The Whip's
Cuts." An essay or series of paragraphs on recent issues and events
of note is interspersed with well-executed little drawings. The
drawings are captioned appropriately, and the caption also forms a
part of the text of the essay, but in a different context. In this
case, "BARGAINING FOR OLD HAT" serves as the caption to a mid-
paragraph illustration showing two men apparently transacting a
purchase in a shop labelled "Chemists Shop". (I do not know
why "Chemist" and not "Haberdasher" -- perhaps the cut was originally
drawn for some other purpose.) In another instance, a paragraph
states that men mind less being TAKEN IN BY A WOMAN (swindled) than
when swindled by a man. "TAKEN IN BY A WOMAN" serves as the caption
to a cut showing a man in more-or-less Elizabethan garb climbing from
the top of a ladder onto a fair maiden's balcony.

I had noted, a few years ago, but hadn't posted here, that this term,
in this sense, had appeared in a joke in another underground paper,
called The Rake (#4, July 9, 1842, p. 2, col. 5). I saw The Rake in
the NYC Archives, in the New York County District Attorney's
indictments files, box 410, for July 14, 1842. I hadn't taken down
the full context at the time, and now having the Sporting Whip passage
from only about 7 months later, I dare say there's no need to get the
Rake's text. I will probably go back to it anyway, since I am getting
interested in the underground press scene of that era.
In any event, it is additional proof that this naughty term was well
known to naughty men in NYC in the mid 19th C.


George A. Thompson
Author of A Documentary History of "The African Theatre", Northwestern
Univ. Pr., 1998, but nothing much lately.

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