The Grammarphobia Blog

Hat tricks

Q: Have you ever answered this question: Where does “hat trick” come from? It’s really common and yet no one I know, not even my husband (a huge sports fan and an English major!), can tell me the origin of the phrase.

A: No, to our great surprise, we haven’t answered that question. So here goes.

The term “hat trick” originated among cricket players in 19th-century England, according to the Oxford English Dictionary and other sources.

A bowler was said to score a “hat trick” for taking “three wickets by three successive balls,” the OED says. 

Supposedly, this feat was called a “hat trick” because it entitled the bowler “to be presented by his club with a new hat or some equivalent,” Oxford explains.

The term first appeared in print, the OED says, in a sporting annual called John Lillywhite’s Cricketers’ Companion (1877):

“Having on one occasion taken six wickets in seven balls, thus performing the hat-trick successfully.”

This later example is from an 1882 issue of a London newspaper, the Daily Telegraph: “He thus accomplished the feat known as the ‘hat trick,’ and was warmly applauded.”

The use of the term spread in the early 1900s—first to horseracing, where a jockey scored a “hat trick” for riding three winners, sometimes in a day and sometimes in succession.

The usage then spread to sports in which three goals could be scored in a single game.

Oxford’s first non-cricketing sports example is from a racing story in the Daily Chronicle of London (1909):

“It is seldom that an apprentice does the ‘hat trick,’ but the feat was accomplished by … an apprentice.” (The young jockey won races on horses named Soldier, Lady Carlton, and Hawkweed.)

Here in the US, “hat trick” is perhaps most familiar in hockey. The Random House Historical Dictionary of American Slang quotes a 1949 sports dictionary that defined the phrase this way: 

Hat trick. … In ice hockey it is achieved by a player scoring three goals in a game, and the term is used similarly in goal games such as soccer and lacrosse.”

But “hat trick” has occasionally been used in baseball as well. A 1950 sports story in the New York Times, quoted by Random House, included this definition: “In baseball, hitting a single, double, triple and home run in one game.”

The term is by no means confined to sports, however. By mid-century, it was being used to apply to any kind of three-fold victory.

The OED cites this 1958 quotation from the Economist: “The Tories are excited because it looks as if they may flout all precedents and complete a hat-trick of wins.”

Random House includes quotations dating from 1951 for “hat trick” used to describe triple feats in politics, book publishing, the auto industry, and classical music.

But to the best of our knowledge, the old custom of awarding a new hat to the happy victor is no longer observed.

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