12 Hats And How They Got Their Names

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Sun hats, floppy hats, baseball caps, bucket hats: It’s easy to guess where the names of these hats come from. But what about fedoras, trilbies, and other headwear we’re donning this days? For the origins of these hat words, we’ll have to have a look under the etymological bonnet.

1. BEANIE

The name of this wintertime warmer, first recorded in the 1940s, is a pet form of bean, early 20th-century American slang for head. The term probably originates in baseball lingo: a beanball is a pitch thrown at a batter’s head; the term then expanded to refer to the head in general. Many Canadians call this cap a tuque, from the French toque, which is the term used for a wide variety of brimless hats—nowadays usually the tall, white chef’s cap.

2. BERET

We may associate berets with Parisian fashionistas or U.S. Army Special Forces, but berets began on the heads of Basque peasants. The word, coming into English from French, ultimately goes back to the Latin birrus. A birrus wasn’t exactly a hat, though; it was a kind of a hooded cloak.

3. BOWLER

The bowler calls up Victorian London—and for good etymological reason. The hat might be named after Thomas and William Bowler, milliners who, in the 1850s, sought a patent for "improvements in hats and other coverings for the head." But bowl, related to the word ball, was once a word for various spherical things in English. And heads, last time we checked, are indeed round.

4. CLOCHE

The cloche hat, all the vogue among women in the Roaring ’20s, is often described as “bell-shaped.” That’s exactly what cloche means in French: bell. Cloche, in turn, is from the Latin for bell, clocca, which could mark the time of day, hence English’s clock.

5. DEERSTALKER

Most will know this hat for the head it sat on: Sherlock Holmes. His iconic hat, though, is properly called a deerstalker, a British term for a very stealthy hunter of, yes, deer. Sir Arthur Conan Doyle never put the hat on his detective’s head; that was the work of illustrator Sidney Paget, who outfitted Sherlock for sleuthing set in the country.

6. DERBY

Speaking of deer, many Americans will know the bowler hat as the derby. In 1780, the 12th Earl of Derby started an annual horserace near Epsom, England. Male spectators there, apparently, were known for sporting hats that came to be called derbies. Derby most likely means “deer village,” joining the Old English deor (deer) and the Scandinavian byr (“town”), also the root of bylaw. Derbies, of course, live not just on top of heads, but also in Louisville, Kentucky and roller rinks.

7. FEDORA

The fedora takes its name from a play, Fédora, which became popular in the U.S. in the 1880s. The drama, written by Victorien Sardou, features a Russian princess named Fédora Romanoff, notably played by the French actress Sarah Bernhardt. One story says Bernhardt donned this type of hat during performances of the play. The name Fédora is a variation on Theodora/Theodore, Greek for “gift of god.”

8. MORTARBOARD

Some hats are worn for fashion, some for function. Others are worn to mark special occasions, like the graduate’s mortarboard. The mortarboard resembles, as the Barnhart Dictionary of Etymology puts it, “a square mason’s board for carrying mortar,” that mixture used to bind bricks and stone. The hat has a long and venerable tradition, perhaps inspired by birettas, worn by certain Catholic clergy, a word that, like beret, also comes from the Latin birrus.

9. PORKPIE

Academics’ mortarboards aren’t the only caps named for their shape. The porkpie hat, with its flat top and short, full brim, apparently resembles a porkpie, a savory British dish.

10. SOMBRERO

Forget ceremony. What’s a hat, ultimately, for? Covering the head from the elements. Providing shade. The broad-brimmed sombrero, in design and derivation, reflects this. First referring to an umbrella in English, sombrero is based on the Spanish sombra, from the Latin subumbrare, “to shadow,” literally under (sub) the shadow (umbra). Somber also comes from this root.

11. TRILBY

Fedoras and trilbies have a lot in common. For one, these two soft felt hats are often confused. For another, they both get their names from literary characters. Trilby is the name of an 1894 novel, and protagonist, by George du Maurier. A London staging of the story had Trilby wearing the hat which is now her namesake. Du Maurier’s Trilby also gives us the character, and word, Svengali.

12. ZUCCHETTO

The Pope is a man of many hats, we could say. When giving his tall and pointy miter a rest, he dons a white skull-cap known as a zucchetto. This means “small gourd” in Italian, from zucca (pumpkin). Gourds, as we can imagine, resemble heads, but you probably don’t want to tell the Pope he’s pumpkin-headed.

Why Do We Call a Leg Cramp a Charley Horse?

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iStock.com/Jan-Otto

If you’re unlucky enough to have experienced a charley horse—a painful muscle spasm or cramp in your leg—then you may have found yourself wondering what this nonsensical phrase even means. Who is this Charley character? Where did he come from? And what does he know about my pain?

Like the words flaky and jazz, this term likely entered the language from the baseball field. While the idiom’s etymology isn’t 100 percent certain, archived newspaper articles suggest it was coined by a baseball player in the 1880s. We just don’t know which player said it first, or why.

According to a January 1887 article in the Democrat and Chronicle, the phrase was well-known to baseball players at the time—but to the average person, charley horses were as enigmatic as “an Egyptian hieroglyphic.” That year, charley horses were mentioned in a slew of newspapers across America, and some attempted to tackle the phrase’s murky origin. “Nearly every sporting journal gives a different version as to how the term charley horse originated in baseball circles,” the Oakland Daily Evening Tribune reported at the time.

The likeliest tale, according to the paper, centered around John Wesley "Jack" Glasscock, a shortstop who at the time was playing for Indianapolis. At some point a few years earlier, the player had strained a tendon in his thigh during a game and afterwards went home to his farm, where his father looked after a lame old horse called a "Charley horse." When the senior Glasscock saw his son limping along, he reportedly exclaimed, “Why, John, my boy, what is the matter; you go just like the old Charley horse?” John supposedly shared the funny turn of phrase with his teammates, and from there it spread. Similar accounts were reported in other newspapers, but they were attributed to various other players.

Other reports say the phrase has nothing to do with a live animal, but rather the fact that an injured player, while running, resembles a rocking horse or a child riding astride a wooden hobby horse.

The New Dickson Baseball Dictionary by Paul Dickson details a few other theories. In two versions of the same basic tale, Orioles or Chicago Cubs players went to the races and bet on a horse named Charlie who "pulled up lame in the final stretch." The next day, a player pulled a tendon in his leg and was said to resemble “our old Charlie horse.”

Alternatively, its origin may relate to an old workhorse that was tasked with pulling a roller across the infield. “Often in the 1800s, old workhorses kept on the grounds of ballparks were called Charley. The movements of the injured, stiff-legged ballplayers were likened to the labored plodding of these old horses, and the injury itself eventually became known as a ‘charley’ or ‘charley horse,'" Tim Considine wrote in 1982's The Language of Sport.

It also appears that charley horse originally implied a much more serious injury—or perhaps there was a bit of hysteria surrounding a condition that seemed new and scary in the late 19th century. The Democrat and Chronicle described a charley horse as a “giving way of one of the small tendons of the leg” and said an injured baseball player might need an entire season to recover. Another article from 1887 said ballplayer George Van Haltren’s relatives were worried he would get a charley horse, “although they do not know what that is.” He was said to have been “very fortunate” because he had “not yet encountered the terrible charley horse.”

For comparison, Healthline.com now says charley horses “are generally treatable at home” by stretching, massaging, or icing the afflicted area, although the muscle pain can linger for up to a day in some cases. So there you have it. We may never know the exact etymology of the charley horse, but the next time you get a sharp pain in your leg, you can thank an old-timey ballplayer for making your struggle sound so silly.

Have you got a Big Question you'd like us to answer? If so, let us know by emailing us at bigquestions@mentalfloss.com.

The Macabre Origins of 10 Death-Related Idioms

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iStock.com/wwing

In 2016, Chapman University conducted a survey of 1511 Americans to gauge their concern over common fears, including crime, natural disasters, and clowns. Predictably, the notion of death was on the minds of many. Roughly 38 percent of respondents said that the idea of a loved one dying made them afraid or very afraid. Approximately 19 percent feared their own death.

That last statistic may speak less to fear of dying than our preference to simply not think about it. We often obscure or obfuscate our own mortality by ignoring it, joking about it, or cloaking it in a way that allows us to avoid confronting the reality that our bodies have expiration dates. For centuries, idioms have allowed us to dance around the topic, trading euphemisms for blunt language. Take a look at some of the more common expressions for death and their possible origins.

1. BUYING THE FARM

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A person who has ceased to be is sometimes said to have "bought the farm." This agricultural expression may have roots in the plight of military pilots in the 20th century. If a fighter jet crashed on a farm, the farm owner could theoretically sue the government for damages. In a roundabout way, the settlement might pay for the farmland, with the expired pilot having "bought" the property. Alternatively, the pilot's family might receive an insurance payment sufficient to pay off their farm mortgage. Another theory? The phrase stemmed from the idea of "the farm" as slang for a burial plot; "bought it" is also an older slang term for died.

2. DEAD AS A DOORNAIL

A door features a knocker and doornails
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Why would anyone associate someone's health—or lack thereof—with carpentry? The earliest usage of someone being "dead as a doornail" dates to a 1350 translation of the anonymous 12th-century French poem Guillaume de Palerne. William Shakespeare used it in Henry VI, Part 2, written around 1591, and Charles Dickens in 1843's A Christmas Carol, writing that "Old Marley was as dead as a door nail," then going on to explain (via the narrator) that he wasn't quite sure why it wouldn't be "coffin nail" thanks to its status as "the deadest piece of ironmongery in the trade." One possible explanation is that wooden doors were often secured with nails that were hammered through and then bent on the protruding side for added strength. Once this process, called "clenching," was performed, the nail was basically useless for any other purpose. The idiom may also refer to the effort involved in driving the nail through the door. Struck with blunt force by a hammer, the nail was effectively "dead" from the trauma.

3. CROSSING THE RAINBOW BRIDGE

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A forlorn announcement of a pet's passing sometimes includes mention of the beloved animal "crossing the rainbow bridge." While the phrase is common on social media, its origins date to the pre-Facebook 1980s. Three authors have all claimed to have written a poem using the language, which refers to a mythical connection between heaven and Earth. On the crossing, pet and owner are said to be reunited. The idea of a rainbow-colored crossing may have stemmed from Norse mythology and the Bifröst bridge, which connected Midgard and Asgard.

4. SIX FEET UNDER

A tombstone appears over a grave
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As idioms go, this one is rather pointed. To die is to often be buried six feet underground. But why six feet? Blame the plague. In 1665, when the illness swept England, London's Lord Mayor ordered that corpses be buried no less than six feet deep in an effort to help limit the spread of the pestilence that eventually took more than an estimated 100,000 lives. There is no such regulation today, and graves can be as shallow as four feet.

5. PUSHING UP THE DAISIES

A daisy is seen in a graveyard
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This gardening-related euphemism takes a pleasant visual (daisies) to soften the subject (the rotting corpse residing underneath). The earliest incarnation of the phrase may have been to "turn one's toes to the daisies." A version appears in the story "The Babes in the Wood," in Richard Harris Barham's Ingoldsby Legends folklore collection of the 1840s, which used the expression "be kind to those dear little folks/When our toes are turned up to the daisies." Another variation, "I shall very soon hide my name under some daisies," was used by Scottish author George MacDonald in 1866.

6. BITE THE DUST

A dusty surface is pictured
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As much as Queen may deserve credit for popularizing the phrase ("Another One Bites the Dust"), they didn't coin it. The idea of sudden death resulting in a body collapsing into dust has origins that date back far earlier. "Lick the dust" can be traced to Psalms 72 of the King James version of the Bible ("They that dwell in the wilderness shall bow before him and his enemies shall lick the dust"), which actually sounds quite a bit more menacing. Translator Tobias Smollett used the altered "bite" version in the French novel The Adventures of Gil Blas of Santillane, originally published by Alain-René Lesage between 1715 and 1735. It also appears in a 19th-century English translation of Homer's Iliad, though it's hard to ascertain whether the phrase should be attributed to Homer or to translator Samuel Butler.

7. KICK THE BUCKET

A bucket sits on top of a crate
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Of all the verbal contortions to get around saying "this person has died," few are more ambiguous than "kick the bucket." One common—and very morbid—explanation is that a person committing suicide may opt to hang themselves by standing on a platform before kicking it away, creating tension on the rope around their neck. To achieve death, they have to literally kick the bucket. This presumes "bucket" was ever slang for a stool, or that it was the only handy stand-in for one. It's more likely the phrase stems from another definition of bucket. In 16th-century England, bucket also meant a yoke or frame from which to hang something. If an animal was being hung up for slaughter, it might kick the frame, or bucket, in an effort to free itself, or in a spasm after death.

8. SHUFFLING OFF THIS MORTAL COIL

A coil is seen in close-up
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This romanticized phrase is another of Shakespeare's contributions to the lexicon of death. In 1602's Hamlet, he wrote, "For in that sleep of death what dreams may come, when we have shuffled off this mortal coil, must give us pause." At the time, coile or coil meant fuss, making the phrase a reference to leaving behind mortal turmoil.

9. LAID OUT IN LAVENDER

Lavender is spread out on a blank surface
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Another seemingly pleasant descriptor, to be "laid out in lavender" is to prepare a body for viewing or burial, presumably by using a pleasant smell to mask the foul odor of decomposition. The idiom takes a cue from "laid up in lavender," or the practice of storing clothes in lavender to keep them from being damaged by insects. The phrase denoting death may have first appeared in a 1926 story in the Syracuse Herald newspaper, with a book reviewer noting that a detective story featured a family "laid out in lavender."

10. SLEEPING WITH THE FISHES

A woman sleeps next to a fish
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A staple of both mob stories and parodies of mob stories, to "sleep with the fishes" is to hint that a rival has been murdered and possibly tossed into a body of water. Luca Brasi famously met this fate in 1972's The Godfather. But the phrase can be dated back to 1836 and to German villagers who wanted to warn off a fly fisherman. As Edmund Spencer describes in Sketches of Germany and the Germans, the villagers threatened the man with violence, an act Spencer worded as a warning that "he would sleep with the fishes." And, yes, fish do sleep, though not in any conventional sense. Without eyelids to droop, they tend to relax their tails and enter a state of reduced arousal.

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