Shoehorning your head into your hat
U 12.1045-7: − Compos
your eye! Says Alf, laughing. Do you know that he's balmy? Look at his head. Do
you know that some mornings he has to get his hat on with a shoehorn.
What might be taken at a first glance for Alf Bergan’s
improvised joke about Dennis Breen turns out to be a fairly standard expression
hinting at some physical or mental defect. The expression has in fact survived
into the 21st century as a T-shirt slogan quoting Muhammad Ali: "I'll beat
him so bad he'll need a shoehorn to put his hat on."1
Its origins go back at least to the middle
of the 19th century:
A CRITERION FOR A DRUNKARD. On Saturday evening last a
countryman visited Burnley, and was complaining of the trouble a drunken man
had given him. "How do you know he was drunk?" said a bystander. The countryman
indignantly replied, "What could he be else, when he asked for the shoehorn to
put his hat on with?"
The expression invariably refers to either
of two groups of swollen heads: those with their heads swollen by drink or
stupidity, and those of people physically threatened by or suffering from violence
to the head:
As George Bergman of Berkeley has pointed out in private correspondence,
a large or swollen head (and megalomania) often seems at the time to correlate with insanity, and the following generation regarded a psychiatrist as a "head-shrinker" or a "shrink". Alf's invitation to the cronies in Barney Kiernan's bar ("Look at his head") confirms this popular myth.
"Here, Solomon," says Levi, "I want to
make you a prisent."
"An' what's this?" Asks Solomon, examining
the article that has been handed to him.
"A shoe horn."
"An' what do I want wid an ould shoe horn?"
"Thry an' get your hat on your head with it"
answers Levi, amid an outburst of merriment from the audience.
"A team of Irish comedians", in John Joseph Jennings,
Theatrical and Circus Life
your old head this A.M.? said Oppenheimer, in his slangy way: "I
had to put my hat on with a shoehorn. I looked in on the boys in Pete
Cannon's last night, just for ten minutes, and the interest was prolonged.
Oh, I got elegant — nickel-plated. Pete took me home himself..."
vol. 10 p. 416
Then he chucks his hat down on the ground and begun
dancin' and cussin', and wants to fight me. 'Keep cool, my lad' — I says, 'and
put your hat on while it fits you. In ten minutes you might want a shoe-horn to
put it on with'…
Francis Wylde Carew,
No. 747: Being the Autobiography of a Gipsy
(1881), p. 112
A late nineteenth-century
children’s poem similarly hints that the expression could also indicate the
behaviour of a lunatic:
The Contrary Man.
A contrary mortal was
Anthony Slaughter –
He washed in the
towel, and wiped in the water,
And put both his legs
through his shirt to get in it,
And forced off the
buttons on purpose to pin it.
He put on his hat
with a shoehorn discreetly,
Employing a bootjack
to take it off neatly;
Hampshire Telegraph and Sussex Chronicle
(1898), 3 September
Bloom thinks of Dennis Breen she remembers being told “that sometimes he used
to go to bed with his muddy boots on when the maggot takes him” (U 18.222-3). It may be more than a coincidence
that both signs of drunkenness (or madness in Breen’s case), the shoehorn to
put on one’s hat and the boots in bed turn up combined in this nostalgic memory
of better times:
in those days chippiness was never known, and a shaky hand undreamt of; the
matutinal brandy and soda was never wanted, and the going to bed in one’s boots
never entailed putting on one’s hat with the shoehorn the next day.
25 October p. 3
1 In the run-up to his title defence against Floyd Patterson in November 1965
(see, for example, the New York Times
of 21 November, p. S2).