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What Is The Origin Of (30)…?

cocked hat


Knock Into A Cocked Hat

This phrase conveys the sense of beating someone severely and, generally, with some ease.

A cocked hat was a form of headwear that was popular towards the end of the 18th century – it was also known as a bicorne. It was a fairly distinctive piece of headwear with the front and rear halves turned up and pinned together. The shorter front brim was known as the cock and the longer rear brim was known as the fan because of its semi-circular fan shape. Later the hat developed into more of a triangular shape with its two ends becoming more pointed and was usually worn with a cockade at the front. The bicorne was widely worn as part of the dress uniform of European and American army and naval officers around the 1790s and is most commonly associated with Napoleon Bonaparte. It was also the hat of choice of civic officials such as town criers.

In England the popular Toby jugs portrayed figurines of characters wearing a cocked hat. The Toby that the jug took its name from was Toby Philpott – not a real person but named after the fill pot jugs that were used to replenish tankards prior to the invention of the beer pump. Many toby jugs seen today are shown holding the fill pot.

The origins of this quaint phrase are lost in the mists of time. One theory is that it relates to a version of the game of skittles called Ninepins. If the skittles were struck in such a way that there were just three standing in a triangular shape, then the final and decisive throw would knock the remaining skittles down. The pins’ triangular formation would be reminiscent of the shape of the popular headwear.

The more likely explanation was that the phrase to knock someone into a cocked hat reflected the fact that the recipient of the beating had their appearance dramatically altered. One of the features of the bicorne was that it could be folded flat – conveniently, this enabled the military man to tuck it under his arm when not worn. This style of cocked hat was known as a chapeau-bras or chapeau-de-bras. So it is reasonable to surmise that the ability to alter the shape of the hat was synonymous with the alteration of the physiognomy of the recipient of a sound beating.

The phrase itself seems to be American in origin, despite its association with Toby jugs and English town criers. The first example to be found in print is in James Kirke Paulding’s novel, The Banks of the Ohio or Westward Ho! Of 1833, “I told Tom – I’d knock him into a cocked-hat, if he said another word”. The phrase appears in an a New York state newspaper, the Rural Repository, in 1837 and its use here conveys the sense of unusual savagery in the attack, “‘Blood and vengeance!’ exclaimed Boniface, ‘get out of my house, you varmints, or I will knock you into a cocked hat, and gormandize you!

Although cocked hats have long fallen out of favour – time for a revival anyone? – their legacy lives on in this still popular phrase.

So now we know!