"That's a great deal to make one word mean," Alice said in a thoughtful tone. "When I make a word do a lot of work like that," said Humpty Dumpty, "I always pay it extra."

Tuesday, 27 January 2009

Mad as a ....

I have a phobia about water. So,when I read the Archduchess’s blog posting about her sailing adventures, words that went through my mind included ‘mad as a hatter’ and ‘mad as a March hare’.

At one time the hat-making industry involved the use of baths of orange nitrate of mercury to soak animal skins. This process, called carroting after the typical colour of the fur being treated, helped make the stiff hairs more pliant, thereby producing a superior felt product. Unfortunately the vapour from the process filled the factory with toxic levels of mercury. With trembling hands and blackened teeth, mercury-poisoned hatters had slurred speech and other nervous disorders, odd behaviours, and symptoms of dementia. It is therefore little surpise that we ended up with the phrase ‘Mad as a Hatter’.

(Engraving by Andy English - available for purchase)

In Spring, hares can be seen boxing in the fields as part of their courtship ritual. Females weren’t always interested in the males' advances early in the season. The females actually “boxed” the amorous male hares using their forelegs to put a stop to it. For a long time it was thought to be bouts between males competing for females. Their strange behaviour led to the equally common phrase ‘Mad a March Hare’.

Lewis Carroll incorporated both the Hatter and the March Hare in Alice’s tea party.

Less easily explained are some of the other expressions used to designate strange behaviour like ‘Mad as Cheese’, 'Mad as a Brush',, ‘Mad as a Bag of Hammers’ or ‘Mad as a Wet Hen’.

Of the many variants one of my favourites is ‘Mad as a Box of Frogs’. I imagine that one at least is self-explanatory.


  1. I've always heard the expression "wet hen" used to refer to a cowardly person, but it makes more sense in "mad as a wet hen"... in the angry sense of the word. I suppose a drenched fowl would be rather unappreciative of the state.

    I have absolutely no idea as to the origin of the others, they are rather hilarious.

  2. Why, I ask, is Mad as a Box of Frogs self-explanatory? Unless, of course, anything would be pretty mad if put in a box.

  3. GB - You have obviously never tried to put a load of frogs into a box let alone keep them in there!

  4. I love the illustrations on this post (because I'm a painter). I could learn a lot from what you are posting on this blog, since phrases and idioms are the last thing in another language (I am Dutch) you catch/learn.
    cheers, jeannette