Old hat

… not literally an old hat, although I was talking with friends yesterday about old hats, but the phrase, meaning old-fashioned… does anyone other than me use the idiom any more? No-one is sure of its origins, and maybe it was literally referring to old hats at a time when everyone wore them… there is some suggestion it might be rather rude, but that just seems to have been a joke by George Grose, who loved puns and rude allusions (he used his own name punningly as he was rather ‘gross’)

My friends and I were talking about real, actually hats, but ‘old hat’ meaning quaint or out of fashion is such a nice term – I’m sure when I use it everyone knows what I mean I even if they’ve never heard it before. I was writing a few days ago about language, and current language, and how difficult it is in fiction to have characters speaking colloquially and in a modern idiom, maybe using street-talk, especially young characters; as older writers, it’s almost impossible to know what current terms are for various thing, what is the latest ‘slang’ – my own children laugh at me when I say some of the things I thought they said and then I have to pretend I was being ironic or deliberately ‘old hat’! I avoid it now, except if there is some older character who I want to show as trying to be young and ‘with-it’ – another obsolete phrase I guess!

Slang and idiom change so quickly, and are very regional. Older people tend to pick up some words and use them way past their sell-by date (and when will that phrase be beyond its own sell-by date?) but they can be very regional. We moved from the north of England to the south-west of England; I was teaching my new class and there was great confusion because I used northern slang which meant something completely different to the young people I was teaching in the south; for example ‘bobbins’ – not the wooden implements used in spinning or sewing, but ‘good/great/fab’ … or was it ‘rubbish/useless/nonsense’? I don’t even remember now!

It’s difficult enough for writers now to keep up with current slang and jokes but going back hundreds of years it is even more difficult for us to understand or even ‘get’ the puns, jokes, plays on words from former times.  It is sometimes hilarious to see old TV series, not just the clothes people wear, the décor of the houses and the social mores of the time, but the jokes and funny comments often completely leave us cold, and quite often offend us because they are so casually sexist, racist, homophobic etc.

I enjoy Shakespeare, and so do many, many people, but even though I’ve studied his work there are still aspects of his language which completely pass me by as the way we now pronounce things, and our current colloquialisms and idioms are so different.  Professor David Crystal, who has published so much about linguistics and language, has been working for the last twelve years on how English would have been pronounced when Shakespeare was writing in it. The result is a book  he has written with his son ben, the ‘Oxford Illustrated Shakespeare Dictionary’. Here are just a couple of examples of his hilarious one-liners which are just flat liners to us now:

  • In Twelfth Night there is a play on “hours”, which would have been pronounced the same as “whores”. Sir Toby is criticised: “My lady takes great exception to your ill hours.”
  • At the end of A Midsummer Night’s Dream Demetrius mocks a player by making a pun of “ace”, which was pronounced “ass”, as in a donkey.

I have taken these examples from this article:


… and here is another review:


…and here is a link to Professor Crystal’s site:


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