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I recently came across this expression:

eat my hat

I googled and found some results. I agree that eating a hat is not easy. But why hat? They could have chosen shoes, gloves, shirt, to name a few.

What is the origin of this idiom? And are there any alternatives?


The "why hat" was addressed in a comment by mplungjan

In 1876 most men in the US wore hats. Not all wore gloves and you do not want to eat a shoe. a) it is not very hygienic, b) you need it on your foot.–

  • Always include the question in the body. Have you (at least) Googled it? The Q. could risk being closed as GR. – Kris Feb 6 '14 at 6:23
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    Please include that too in the question. If you need help in editing just post a comment, and we are all here. – Kris Feb 6 '14 at 6:29
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    Perhaps it was a pork-pie hat. – Edwin Ashworth Feb 6 '14 at 7:56
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    Sadly, I don’t think we will ever know why a hat in particular was chosen—I have a feeling it was just something someone came up with humorously and randomly, and it stuck and spread. If he’d happened to come up with “I’ll eat my left coat pocket if …”, that’s probably what we’d be saying now, too. +1 for an interesting question, though. I for one had never stopped to wonder why on earth a hat in particular. – Janus Bahs Jacquet Feb 6 '14 at 12:04
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    Perhaps it was a beanie. – Edwin Ashworth Feb 6 '14 at 17:19
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A quick search yields:

MEANING:

Having confidence in a specific outcome; being almost sure about something.

When a person makes a strong assumption, they may use popular idioms and phrases like this one to describe their feelings of near certainty.

ORIGIN:

Know your phrase

Speaking in a literal sense, would you really want to eat a hat? I wouldn't think so, considering they are made from materials such as cotton, linen, and leather; none of which sound particularly appetizing. Moreover, consuming a hat could be potentially dangerous, and it probably doesn't taste very good either.

Nobody really wants to eat their hat. That's why this expression is only said when a person is feeling extremely confident about something.

This phrase makes an early appearance in several newspapers from the 19th century, one of them being the Iowa South West from the city of Bedford, 1876:

"If you are not Joe Kirby," he said, I will eat my hat-I mean, of course-" "Come, this is trifling. I say that you mistook me for some one else. What makes you think me Joe Kirby?" "Because you are."

phrases.org.uk

The earliest example of the phrase that I can find in print is Thomas Brydges' Homer Travestie (A Burlesque Translation of Homer), 1797:

For though we tumble down the wall,
And fire their rotten boats and all,
I'll eat my hat, if Jove don't drop us,
Or play some queer rogue's trick to stop us.

A simple alternative of "to eat one's hat" is "to be very surprised".

  • I did not downvote (yet) but this is not a real answer. Links as answers have been discouraged on most, if not all, stackexchange sites. – TecBrat Feb 6 '14 at 5:14
  • I am not the downvoter. However after all that explanation, do you think your alternative "to be very surprised" is correct? When the phrase means "to be sure of an outcome", the alternative should instead be "to be extremely confident" / "to be able to vouch" etc. – Nitika Feb 6 '14 at 5:32
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    how is "to be very surprised" a suitable substitute? – Nitika Feb 6 '14 at 6:41
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    The main problem with your post (and I did not downvote, just fixed some of it) is it is a verbatim cut and paste from another site without showing what parts are your writing and what parts are from the source. Actually the other source has older examples – mplungjan Feb 6 '14 at 7:05
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    I suggest you learn to live with the downvoters. An uncommented downvote is annoying me too no end, but it is part of the package here I'm afraid. That said, your first post was not useful. Only links (they change) and I also do not find "to be very surprised" to be an alternative to eating a hat. If you want to show the asker that he/she needs to google first, and how easy it is to find proper links, add as a comment or vote to close as off topic – mplungjan Feb 6 '14 at 7:13
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But why hat?

Why would the promise (or threat) to eat one's hat make an assertion and opinion all the more compelling? Well yes, eating a hat would be an awkward, difficult and highly unpleasant endeavor, but as the OP reminded us; why not a shirt, a jacket, pair of underpants or even a pair of socks?

I have one theory. Unfortunately, I am unable to find any concrete evidence to support it but despite this fact, I think my argument is solid.

To begin with it's a well-known fact that hats were de rigueur from the late 1700s until the second World War—everybody wore hats—irrespective of age, sex or social class. Photos and illustrations from the Victorian era clearly show that wearing hats was not simply a choice of fashion, it was an essential item of clothing. This was true in the United Kingdom, but also in the rest of Europe and the United States. Hat factories sprung up throughout the western world and when hatters began treating raw rabbit or beaver fur with mercury nitrate in order to produce a higher quality of felt, the continual exposure to the fumes and vapours of this toxic metal meant that their bodies became poisoned; resulting in symptoms such as trembling (known as "hatters' shakes"), loss of coordination, slurred speech, loosening of teeth, memory loss, depression, irritability, anxiety and other personality changes.

Mad hatter Disease

During the Victorian era the hatters' malaise became proverbial, as reflected in popular expressions like "mad as a hatter" and "the hatters' shakes".

The first description of symptoms of mercury poisoning among hatters appears to have been made in St Petersburg, Russia, in 1829. In the United States, a thorough occupational description of mercury poisoning among New Jersey hatters was published locally by Addison Freeman in 1860. Adolph Kussmaul's definitive clinical description of mercury poisoning published in 1861 contained only passing references to hatmakers, including a case originally reported in 1845 of a 15-year-old Parisian girl [...]. In Britain, the toxicologist Alfred Swaine Taylor reported the disease in a hatmaker in 1864.

Consequently, people were fully aware of the health hazards connected to hat making, and in making such a bold statement, I'll eat my hat, an element of gravitas (I could die!) was deliberately intended which today is lost.

Finally, in answer to the OP's second request as to whether there are alternatives to the idiom, eat one's hat, I would suggest the following:

  • I stake my reputation on (someone or something)

If you stake something such as your money or your reputation on the result of something, you risk your money or reputation on it

  • you bet your bottom dollar

based on the literal meaning of bottom dollar (your last bit of money, which you would not risk losing)

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The origin of eat one’s hat is Charles Dickens’ Pickwick Papers (1836):

If I knew as little of life as that, I’d eat my hat and swallow the buckle whole.

World Wide Words cites OED with qualification,

According to the OED, the phrase used to appear sometimes in the form eat old Rowley’s hat though the OED has no citations for it. Old Rowley was the name of Charles II’s favourite horse, a name that was transferred to the monarch himself, though why his hat should be especially favoured in idiomatic history is a mystery.

An alternative to "eat my hat" would be to "eat humble pie". To eat humble pie is to be compelled into humility for having made a serious error.

Why can't the Daily Mail eat humble pie over MMR?

The recent publication of a Cochrane systematic review concluded that there is no credible evidence of a link between the measles, mumps, and rubella (MMR).

The IMF may be forced to eat humble pie over the UK

The International Monetary Fund could be forced into an embarrassing U-turn this week and upgrade growth forecasts for the U.K.

The Pope, "Better to eat humble pie than let anger harden the heart".

Another alternative is to "eat crow".

  • The first line in this answer is clearly not correct—see the quote from 1797 (date of publication; probably written at least 20 years earlier still, a good 35 or 40 years before Dickens was born) in d’alar’cop’s answer. – Janus Bahs Jacquet Feb 6 '14 at 14:29

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