Q: Why is the verb “doff” almost exclusively linked to hats of one sort or another? It’s a great word and I was wondering about its history.
A: The verb “doff” has been used with all sorts of clothing since it showed up in English in the 1300s.
The Oxford English Dictionary describes “doff” as “a literary word with an archaic flavour,” and defines it as “to put off or take off from the body (clothing, or anything worn or borne); to take off or ‘raise’ (the head-gear) by way of a salutation or token of respect.”
The earliest example of the usage in the OED is from The Romance of William of Palerne, a poem written around 1375 and edited in the 19th century by the English philologist Walter William Skeat:
“Dof bliue þis bere-skyn” (“Doff quickly this bearskin”). The reference here is to a wrap made from the skin of a bear; the term “bearskin” didn’t refer to a hat until the 19th century.
In fact, most of the citations for the verb in the OED refer to doffing items of clothing other than hats.
In the history play King John (believed written in the 1590s), Shakespeare refers to a cloak of lion’s hide: “Thou weare a Lyons hide! doff it for shame.”
And in the epic poem Marmion (1808), Sir Walter Scott uses the term for both outerwear and headgear: “Doffed his furred gown, and sable hood.”
There are even examples for doffing things other than clothing. Shakespeare’s Macbeth (late 1500s to early 1600s) refers to making Scottish women fight “to doffe their dire distresses.” And in Romeo and Juliet (1590s), Juliet says, “Romeo doffe thy name.”
As for today, the verb “doff” is often associated with hats, but not “almost exclusively,” as you seem to believe. Here are the results of two Google searches: “doffed his hat,” 41,100 hits; “doffed his shirt,” 26,600.
We’ve checked eight standard dictionaries and all but one say “doff” may refer to any type of clothing. However, most of them note its specific use for tipping or removing a hat in greeting or to show respect.
Etymologically, the word “doff” is a “coalesced form of do off,” according to the OED. It’s derived from the expression “to do off,” meaning “to put off, take off, remove (something that is on).”
Similarly, the verb “don” (to put on), which dates from the 1560s in written English, is a contracted form of “do on.”
Oxford says the expression “do off,” which dates from early Old English, is now archaic. However, it has a recent example from The Sharing Knife: Legacy, a 2007 fantasy novel by Lois McMaster Bujold: “She wriggled up to do off her boots and belt.”