John McIntyre, whom James Wolcott calls "the Dave Brubeck of the art and craft of copy editing," writes on language, editing, journalism, and other manifestations of human frailty. Comments welcome. Identifying his errors relieves him of the burden of omniscience. Write to jemcintyre@gmail.com, befriend at Facebook, or follow at Twitter: @johnemcintyre. Back 2009-2012 at the original site, http://weblogs.baltimoresun.com/news/mcintyre/blog/ and now at www.baltimoresun.com/news/language-blog/.

Tuesday, September 22, 2009

Take off your hat, sir

I was on the stand, testifying* in Baltimore County Circuit Court, when a man in a dark suit and a hat came into the courtroom and sat down. The judge stopped me and addressed the newcomer: “This is a courtroom. Take off your hat.” The man said, “Your Honor, may I approach?”

It turned out that the man in the hat was a lawyer scheduled to appear in a pending case. He explained that he had just completed a course of chemotherapy. “That’s all right,” the judge said; we don’t care how you look.”

“It’s not pretty, Your Honor,” the lawyer said.

“I’d prefer for you to take it off.”

”Are you threatening me with contempt?” the lawyer asked.

The judge backed off. If the lawyer had been Jewish and Orthodox, a head covering would not have been objectionable. And I assume that the judge preferred not to appear to bully a cancer survivor. The hat stayed on.

It was, however, a white hat worn after Labor Day, and a contempt citation on that ground alone could have been justified.

Gentlemen: I wear a hat, usually a fedora from September to May, a Panama from Memorial Day to Labor Day. You, too, may wear headgear, perhaps, despite your having attained adult years, a baseball cap. Let me give you some advice.

You may recall the song from Hello, Dolly: “I stand for motherhood, America and a hot lunch for orphans, / Take off your hat, sir, Betsy Ross’s flag is passing. ...” Uncover your head in church, at the library, at the opera, at table,** or at any other sacred place, unless you are Jewish and Orthodox, or Quaker. Take your hat off at the singing of the national anthem, or when a lady enters an elevator. You were not brought up in a barn.

Flannery O’Connor, asked repeatedly why the Misfit in “A Good Man Is Hard to Find,” wears a black hat, finally snapped, “To cover his head.” That, indeed, is the function of the hat, to cover the head against the heat of the sun in summer and the chill of winter (because so much heat is radiated from the head in cold). Taking the hat off is a mark of respect in those circumstances where respect is advisable.



*My daughter, Alice, had taken her former landlady to Small Claims Court in a dispute over refunding of the bulk of her security deposit. Alice prevailed in Small Claims Court, and again on the landlady’s appeal to Circuit Court, because her heart is pure and her cause was just.

**It should tell you something that James Thurber once described the members of the Ohio Legislature as “the sort of men who fanned their soup with their hats.”

21 comments:

  1. Oh, you're such an interesting fellow.

    And I believe you have a typo in your song lyrics.

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  2. Where do you find your hats? I own several fedoras, but I always find them in odd and unreliable places, and never in enough variety that I am really happy with what I've bought.

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  3. I used to wear hats all the time. Then one day I bumped my head on a low-hanging branch in the rain forest. Except to sleep or shower I never took off my hat. Not realizing I was injured, the heat, humidity, and the hat made a perfect environment for a nasty strep G infection on the top of my head. Even though it was a fluke, I'm not as faithful with my hat wearing as I once was.

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  4. So, I understand the origins of the tradition that goes back to removing a piece of armor, baring your neck and removing a weapon from your hand, thereby showing trust and respect. But here are a few "rules" that I find intriguing:
    - never tip or remove the hat with a cigarette, pipe or cigar in your mouth.
    - tip your hat to a female stranger if you speak to her on the street.
    - take your hat off indoors, unless you are sitting at a lunch counter.
    There are others (evidently a rather complex etiquette for hat wearing), but I find these rules among the most interesting...

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  5. My male college students are always shocked when I ask them to remove their hats indoors. Those who refuse are directed to either comply or seriously consider dropping the class. If they're going to fight me over simple matters like that, I've found I can generally count on tardiness, absences, and shoddy work (if any)

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  6. I hold that there are only two sorts of hats worth wearing: the Russian, with furry ear flaps to keep out the cold, and the Vietnamese and South Chinese, with huge downward-pointing brims to keep off the rain. And even in those cases I'd rather wear a coat with a hood.

    So I keep my head uncovered except when directly exposed to the elements, and thus need worry about no hat etiquette, no hat testimony, and indeed no hat tricks.

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  7. Reminds me of this bit from the Three Stooges' "Disorder in the Court":
    http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=C6q37n7GDCY

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  8. Good grief. I'd be tempted to drop the class and I'm a non-hat-wearing woman.

    Before I read the comments, I was only going to point out that Tom Landry never wore his hat in the Super Dome.

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  9. Please don't besmirch those of us who were, in fact, brought up largely in barns. I was taught nearly all of the rules listed here and follow them to this day, with the possible exception of the lady-in-an-elevator rule. But that situation is covered by the general rule I was taught, "Take your hat off when you are indoors."

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  10. I suspect the students with baseball caps - hideous habit - no doubt would put their feet up on their desks. I asked them to take them off, and they did. (Most of my students in that class had a sense of humor, a quality which no longer resides on campus.) Purity of heart has no place in the law. Clearly Alice was in the right, speaking legally.

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  11. Why do grown men wear baseball caps anyway? I've always wondered about that. I read an interesting book titled, "The Death of the Grownup" and I love the author's description of grown men wearing boyish clothes that radiate "the eternal rumple of summer camp"...

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  12. LastBestAngryMan.

    Talk about narrow minded! Just because someone wants to wear a hat in class does not mean that they aren't intelligent and capable of excellent work. That kind of assumption makes you the disrespectful one.

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  13. Well, Anonymous, a student who wears his hat in class may well be intelligent and capable of excellent work. He is also rude, either deliberately or from being badly brought up.

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  14. ^Or perhaps you're the rude one for not being considerate of other people. It's none of your business what people wear, you don't have to like it but you have no right to impose your views on anyone else.

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  15. I agree with Sara. I am dealing with the same problem right now. My teacher wants me to take my hat off in class. I wear a baseball cap at work so that flying sparks do not go in my hair. I then leave work and go to school, where my teacher requries me to take my hat off, or she will count me absent. Regardless if I am there or not. I understand trying to teach respect to the younger generations, but you should not assume that within your infinate wisdom you posses the power to judge people solely on their apperance. Further more on their so called lack of respect in your eyes. For you to call those students disrespectfull would be to call me the same. I am a veteran the served for five years and did two deployments to Iraq and Afganistan. So I ask you, in our situation, which of us has to demand respect and which of us has earned it?

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  16. Anonymous above is making a mistake of categories. If, say, you work in a restaurant kitchen preparing food, it is appropriate to wear a head covering. At the dinner table, it is not. All social conventions are inherently arbitrary. People who wish to flout them may go ahead, but at a cost to what other people may think of them. I may think that handshaking as a greeting is unsanitary and meaningless; but if I refuse to shake hands, people will likely think me haughty.

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  17. No one really knows why you take your hat off indoors? Maybe it's a test to see who is balding?

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  18. I know you say it's disrespectful, but why is that? it just doesn't make sense.... so please explain that to me so I have a better understanding and so I have a better reason than "because it shows respect."

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  19. John, that was a good piece on the doff the lid thing. Question follow: should men who sport silly and easily see throughable combovers lose the combover the way finally that Rudy G and Ehud B did when their PR people told them they'd look better on TV without the C.O.? So then why does PR pro David Gergen continue to sport one of the most ... See Moreridiculous combovers in CNN talking head history and his wife is a therapist no less? I know, I know, he does the combover for himself, to boost his own internal vigor, but he's a PR pro and advising presidents and he's a CO guy? There is a disconnect there, no? Would he wear a hat on TV? No. So why does he sport the silly CO? Someone should gently whisper in his ear and say ''David, lost the lid......'' -- he's SMART! i like him. he speaks well. But why the CO?

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  20. Is this America or Nazi Germany? We are slaves and we get treated accordingly. There is no man that can judge me! This is BS

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  21. Old thread,but actually it is just as valid to say it disrespectfull to ASK a man to remove His hat,just as it would be any of his other clothing.For me my hat is part of my clothing and its personal.

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