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I've looked it up on phrases.org.uk, which gives the following quote as the first usage:

This began life in the USA, in the late 19th century, with a slightly different meaning from the present one. It then meant to bluster. Farmer and Henley Slang and Its Analogues, 1888:

"Dis is only a bluff dey're makin' - see! Dey're talkin' tru dere hats"

It then gives filibustering in Parliament as a possible link, but I find it hard to connect British politics with American slang used by farmers:

Having made a point of order and while wearing a top hat, an MP couldn't be interrupted and could continue talking for as long as he/she wished.

But agrees that this is unlikely:

Unfortunately, although the link is plausible, I can't find any documentary evidence that links this practice with talking through one's hat. It also seems unlikely that the arcane practices of top-hatted Victorian gentlemen in the UK parliament would have crossed the Atlantic. Much more likely that the phrase originated in the USA and the meaning changed slightly over time.

Is there any better explanation of the origins in America of this phrase?

  • Is there any relation to a baseball coach talking to a player through a ballcap to prevent lip readers from getting a tell? – TaliesinMerlin Aug 23 at 18:50
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In his 1879 Decoration Day, an oration at the Academy of Music, New York, Chauncy Depew credited his use of "talking through his hat" to "the slang phrase of my Bowery friends":

After reading all the speeches, some good, some indifferent, some bad and some incomprehensibe, except on the theory best expressed by the slang phrase of my Bowery friends that the orator was "talking through his hat"....

So Depew's use of the phrase was to make sense of nonsense. That comports with the contemporary meaning:

to talk about something without understanding what you are talking about

Cambridge Dictionary

Depew's sense, however, may intimate what appears to have been the more common early meaning of the slang phrase, a sense which is perhaps closer to the literal. That meaning found expression in another early print use:

The very latest remark about the young man who has corralled everything from beer to champagne the nght before and gets around in the morning morose and silent is that "he is talking through his hat." It is said that this is quite as expressive as anything he could say.

The Sun, New York, NY, 11nov1886 (fourth column, toward bottom).

As described, the slang phrase evokes the mumbling, fragmented speech of a drunk or person suffering from a severe hangover, speech that sounds much as might be heard from somebody actually talking through a hat.

In light of this early, more literal meaning, the earlier (at least as early as the 1820s) 'in his hat', a phrase said to be Irish in origin and signifying "drunk" (see also the British slang sense of 'elevated', that is, "intoxicated"), should be mentioned as at least a possible influence on the development of the contemporary meaning of 'talking through his hat'.

British uses of 'talking through his hat', which as far as can be determined (by me, who else) first appeared in the 1890s, seem to be sponsored by the American, as witnesses this from the Manchester Evening News (paywalled; Manchester, UK) of 20oct1891 (emphasis mine):

One wonders what would have been the effect upon the colonel's enthusiastic nature if he had had another bottle of wine, or upon the veracious chronicler of the important speech if the colonel had accompanied his utterances by a defiant nod. It doesn't seem to have occurred to the said chronicler that the colonel was "talking through his hat," as the Americans say.

In contrast or as supplement to the possible influence of the Irish 'in his hat', press accounts in the US from 1900 propose an even earlier origin (from the 17th century):

  Somebody has discovered that the slang "Talking through his hat" did not originate in America, but was first used by Moliere, the French dramatist, who in his "Miser" makes one of his characters say: "To whom I speak? I am speaking to the inside of my hat." — Philadelphia Times

Whatever the scope of the influence of the Irish 'in his hat' and the speech in Moliere's "Miser", the US origin of the phrase, and hence the British origin, is evidently from Bowery (New York) slang of the mid-to-late 19th century.

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Grammarphobia suggests that possibly two indipendent similar expressions developed in BrE and AmE:

The Random House Historical Dictionary of American Slang and the Oxford English Dictionary cite this quotation from the New York World in 1888 as the earliest printed example: “Dis is only a bluff dey’re makin’ – see! Dey’re talkin’ tru deir hats.”

But

Several correspondents writing to the journal Notes and Queries in 1923 said that in the mid-1800s the phrase was applied to ostentatious Englishmen who upon entering a church stood with their hats in front of their faces and prayed into them to avoid having to kneel.

  • In the words of one writer, “As the custom died out, this kind of ‘talking through one’s hat’ may have seemed to a younger generation to have savoured of Pecksniffery.” Another writer, however, objected that this practice was called “talking to your hat,” not through it.

Whatever. It may be that the American expression and the now defunct British one came about independently.

  • Interesting. We've got a few suggestions for the etymology of the British expression; is there any for the American? – marcellothearcane Aug 23 at 17:22

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