Historically Speaking

Making sense of it all!

At The Drop Of A Hat

Posted by Elyse Bruce on April 24, 2013

Nothing says urgency quite like doing something at the drop of a hat. When someone does this, it means they will stop what they’re doing at the time and immediately go on to something else without preparation or warning … and sometimes without stopping to think about the possible repercussions of their actions.

Back on June 5, 2009 the New Hampshire Business Review published an article entitled, “Sorry, Wrong Number.” It recounted (in 4 short paragraphs) the situation of Peter Burling, former Democratic State Senator from Cornish whose telephone service provider had claimed in a report to credit agencies that a matter of $17 had not been paid. The fact of the matter is that the bill had been paid long again by electronic payment. The article included this sentence.

That report apparently was enough for American Express to lower the credit limit on Burling’s longstanding account, something that — as many of us are finding out first-hand of late — credit card companies are happy to do at the drop of a hat.

On April 30, 1940 the St. Petersburg Times reported the latest on what was happening on the war fronts in Europe in an article entitled, “Allied Troops Throw Back Nazi Attack On Norwegian Rail Line: This Happened In The Past 24 Hours.” Not only was the activity in Norway reported, but news of special diplomatic envoy, Adolfo Alessandrini’s anticipated visit to New York was reported as well. The article included this in the news story:

Nevertheless, it would be premature to conclude that Russia would remain non-belligerent under all conditions while Italy would dash into the war at the drop of a hat. In the utterances of the Soviet leaders and press it has already been stated that Russia could not remain indifferent to any disturbances that might transpire on the Balkan-Black sea zone. ON her side, Italy has lit it be known that she regards the Balkans as her especial sphere of interests.

Going back almost another 50 years, the Easton Free Press newspaper of June 8, 1894 published an alarming article entitled, “Cripple Creek’s War.” Reporting on what was happening in Manown in Pennsylvania, readers were informed that 4,000 miners were willing to surrender to the militia but not to deputies, where deputies were protecting what they referred to as “negro laborers.” The story read in part:

Sheriff Bowers was waited on by a large delegation of deputies, who urged him to allow them to accompany him to Bull Hill. This may precipitate a row. The town is still intensely excited, and there was little sleep in camp last night. The presence of the militia does not bring any relief. The deputies want non of their aid, and strikers stand ready for a scrimmage at the drop of a hat.

In the book, “Life And Adventures Of A Country Merchant: A Narrative of His Exploits at Home, during His Travels, and in the Cities; Designed to Amuse and Instruct” by American novelist, John Beauchamp Jones (March 6, 1810 – February 4, 1866) and published in 1854, the following dialogue is found:

“Hang it, Polly! Ain’t you going to have me, after all your propositions and entreaties? You said you’d marry me at the drop of a hat! Once we were half married! And again, when I pleaded my honour, you said you would see if I couldn’t be made to disregard it.”

Some reference books identify this as the earliest use of the expression but I found on that goes back even further to October 12, 1837 in the Register of Debates in Congress where the following is recorded:

They could agree in the twinkling of an eye — at the drop of a hat — at the crook of a finger — to usurp the sovereign power; they cannot agree, in four months, to relinquish it.

Based on how the phrase is used in this instance, it’s clear that the expression was understood by those who read the Register which means it was already a recognized expression back in 1837. Unfortunately, Idiomation was unable to trace the idiom back any further than this date and can only guess that it probably came into vogue at the very least in at the turn of that century.

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One Response to “At The Drop Of A Hat”

  1. There is another usage, too, can’t remember the exact quote, but in one of the children’s Clue books (based on the board game), the author writes that Colonel Mustard will duel “at the drop of a hat.” Someone drops an hat, and, sure enough, he challenges them to a duel.

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