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Where does the figure of speech "at the drop of a hat" come from?

I understand the phrase means "Immediately; instantly; on the slightest signal or urging. (Alludes to the dropping of a hat as a signal.)" - TheFreeDictionary.com

But I don't understand why anyone would think that dropping a hat were some sort of signal.

What's the historical context?

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3 Answers 3

up vote 5 down vote accepted

Since the earliest examples of this phrase in print have no specific mention of fighting, my bet is on the start-of-a-race explanation from James Rogers' Dictionary of Cliches:

DROP OF A HAT - Acting readily or on some single signal. In the 19th century it was occasionally the practice in the United States to signal the start of a fight or a race by dropping a hat or sweeping it downward while holding it in the hand. The quick response to the signal found its way into the language for any action that begins quickly without much need for prompting.

The earliest reference I could find was from a hearing on a bankruptcy law from an 1837 Register of Debates in Congress:

http://books.google.com/books?id=bkoPAAAAYAAJ&pg=RA1-PA634&dq=%22drop+of+a+hat%22&hl=en&ei=sJgOTv_-FYnX0QG90fCMDg&sa=X&oi=book_result&ct=result&resnum=1&ved=0CC0Q6AEwAA#v=snippet&q=%22drop%20of%20a%20hat%22&f=false

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How interesting! –  Steve Jul 2 '11 at 4:48
    
@Steve: Welcome to English.SE. You can select one of these answers as most helpful by clicking the check mark to the left. This awards additional points to the answerer and encourages participation on any future questions you may have. –  Callithumpian Jul 2 '11 at 21:14
    
Thanks. I'm pretty familiar with the process from StackOverflow. But that was a very nice reminder :) I was just waiting to see if anyone else weighed in. –  Steve Jul 2 '11 at 21:45
    
Great reference, especially as it gives two other similar phrases. –  Hugo Jul 3 '11 at 12:27
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From the Phrase finder:

: This saying is said to come from the American West, where the signal for a fight was often just the drop of a hat. It may have an Irish origin, based on something like "he's ready to fight at the drop of a hat" which in turn may be followed by "roll up your sleeves" or "take off your coat" ie items of clothing are involved in the start of fights.

Also, this might help:

: During the days of fairground boxing competitions, the public were invited to try their skill against the resident pugilist. In those days all men wore hats. In order to indicate willingness to enter the fray a man in the crowd would throw his hat into the ring. Since he was then bare-headed, he was easily identified as he made his way up to the ring.

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I hadn't heard the boxing reference before. Neat! –  Steve Jul 2 '11 at 4:51
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The second quote is an explanation for the phrase threw his hat into the ring, but doesn't fit at the drop of a hat. –  mgkrebbs Jul 2 '11 at 5:50
    
And to "throw one's hat into the ring" meant to enter a competition, even for President of the United States. –  Tom Au Jul 2 '11 at 19:58
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I see several websites claiming this expression is of Irish origin, alluding to the dropping of a hat as an invitation to fight, but I doubt this.

I think it's from dueling days. Conventionally the duelists would fire when a third party dropped a handkerchief. But I think it would often have been a hat.

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Ooh! Very nice! –  Steve Jul 2 '11 at 4:48
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