The Grammarphobia Blog

Hat talk

Q: The other night a friend brought up the expression “talking through your hat” and wondered if it comes from the way Joseph Smith, founder of the LDS Church, used to communicate with his famous “speaking stones” by burying his face in his hat. I said I’d ask Patricia! Whaddya think?

A: Cassell’s Dictionary of Slang says “to talk through one’s hat” is an American expression from the late 19th century and means to talk nonsense, to boast, or to exaggerate. But Cassell’s doesn’t comment on the origin of the expression.

The Random House Historical Dictionary of American Slang and the Oxford English Dictionary cite this quotation from the New York World in 1888 as the earliest printed example: “Dis is only a bluff dey’re makin’ – see! Dey’re talkin’ tru deir hats.”

Stephen Crane used the expression in his novel The Third Violet (1896): ” ‘Oh, you talk through your hat,’ replied Florinda. ‘Billie don’t care whether I like him or whether I don’t.’ “

Did the phrase originate with Joseph Smith? Well, there are several versions of how the Church of Latter Day Saints got the Book of Mormon.

In the one you’re referring to, Smith used a “seer stone” to translate ancient writing engraved on plates. In this version, he reportedly put the stone in a hat and then buried his face in the hat to block out the light.

So, does this account have anything to do with talking through one’s hat? Well, the translation business is said to have taken place in the 1820s, thus the timing is right. But I haven’t found any evidence that this is the source of the expression.

Several correspondents writing to the journal Notes and Queries in 1923 said that in the mid-1800s the phrase was applied to ostentatious Englishmen who upon entering a church stood with their hats in front of their faces and prayed into them to avoid having to kneel.

In the words of one writer, “As the custom died out, this kind of ‘talking through one’s hat’ may have seemed to a younger generation to have savoured of Pecksniffery.” Another writer, however, objected that this practice was called “talking to your hat,” not through it.

Whatever. It may be that the American expression and the now defunct British one came about independently.

Another heady phrase, “in your hat,” has been used to express “derision or incredulity” since the 1920s, according to Random House.

An article in Vanity Fair in 1927 said, ” ‘In your hat’ is equivalent to ‘applesauce,’ ‘boloney,’ ‘hooey,’ or ‘banana oil.’ ” (A little aside here. I had a blog item a while back on the subject of “Phooey!”)

But why “in your hat” rather than, say, “in your shoe”? Random House compares “in your hat” to a more vulgar expression, “go shit in your hat,” which it traces to the poet William Blake’s satirical work An Island in the Moon (circa 1784): “I’ll sing you a song said the Cynic. The Trumpeter shit in his hat said the Epicurean & clapt it on his head said the Pythagorean.”

Here are two more modern examples: From Jerome Weidman’s novel I Can Get It for You Wholesale (1937), “All I have to say is: In your hat and over your ears; you look good in brown.” And from Calder Willingham’s novel End as a Man (1947), “Go shit in your hat.”

With that, I’ll put on my impeccably clean hat and go for a walk.

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