The Grammarphobia Blog

Hats off to the bowler

Q: The French word for bowler (the hat) is melon, which also means what you’d think it does in France. I assume that English speakers similarly call the hat a “bowler” because it resembles an upside-down bowl?

A: The French aren’t the only ones to name the hat for a round object. In Dutch, it’s bolhoed (globe hat), in Spanish hongo (mushroom), in German melone, and in Italian bombetta (little bomb—think of a cartoon bomb).

It may seem logical, therefore, that the English word comes from “bowl,” and many people make that assumption, but there’s another kind of logic at work here.

The bowler was created in 1850 for William Coke II, later the earl of Leicester, who wanted a snug hat with a hard, rounded crown to protect his gamekeepers from branches as they rode on horseback.

His purveyors of headgear, James and George Lock of No. 6 St. James’s Street, London, designed the hat and had it produced by their chief suppliers, Thomas and William Bowler of Southwark.

The hat took its name from the Bowler label inside and not from its bowl-like shape.

The bowler has also been called a “derby,” especially in the United States, apparently because of its association with horseback riding and races, or “derbies.”

(Americans say DUR-bee, by the way, and the British say DAR-bee.)

The original Derby, run in 1780 at Epsom Downs in Surrey, was named after Edward Stanley, 12th earl of Derby.

He had earned the right to name the race by winning a coin toss with Sir Charles Bunbury, but Sir Charles got the last laugh when his horse Diomed won.

We’ve written in more detail about the bowler in Origins of the Specious, our book about English myths and misconceptions.

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