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.”