Mad as a March Hare

Photagraph by Simon Litten

Photagraph by Simon Litten

Spring is finally upon us – I’m sure I even saw a glimpse of sunshine the other day. Turning the calendar over to March always makes me feel a little more cheerful – the dark, drab days of winter are finally coming to an end and the days hold the promise of warmth and light and colour.

This morning, flicking through news when I should have been writing, I stumbled upon this rather lovely picture of a ‘mad’ March hare, and it made me wonder when and where the saying originated.

Photograph by Simon Litten

Photograph by Simon Litten

The meaning is clear – someone as ‘mad as a March hare’ is behaving strangely, as hares do in the month of March, although they have an excuse as it’s the start of their mating season, something I’m sure they are very excited about. But when did we start to use the comparison to describe other people?

One of the first recorded instances of an early form of the term dates from around 1500 in the poem ‘Blowbol’s Test:

Thanne þey begyn to swere and to stare, And be as braynles as a Marshe hare

(Then they begin to swerve and to stare, And be as brainless as a March hare)

John Skelton, writing in the 16th century has a penchant for variations on the phrase, in both’ Replycacion’ (1528):

Aiii, I saye, thou madde Marche Hare”

And ‘Magnyfycence’ (1529)

As mery as a marche hare”

Even Sir Thomas More was a fan, and in his ‘Supplycacyn of soulys’ (1529) gives the first record of the phrase as we now use it:

“As mad not as a March hare, but as a madde dogge.”

A derivative phrase – ‘hare-brained’ – appears in 1548, in Edward Hall’s Chronicle:

“My desire is that none of you be so unadvised or harebrained…”

Perhaps the most famous mad March hare is the creation of Lewis Carroll, in that  lovely classic ‘Alice in Wonderland’ who, along with the Mad Hatter, presides over a very confusing tea party:

‘Have some wine,’ the March Hare said in an encouraging tone.

Alice looked all round the table, but there was nothing on it but tea. ‘I don’t see any wine,’ she remarked.

‘There isn’t any,’ said the March Hare.’

 ‘The March Hare took the watch and looked at it gloomily: then he dipped it into his cup of tea, and looked at it again: but he could think of nothing better to say than his first remark, “It was the best butter, you know.”

mad march hare - carroll

In the original illustrations for the book by Sir John Tenniel, the poor March Hare is depicted with straw on his head. This was a symbol often used in Victorian illustration to depict madness. It has been suggested that this comes from no less a famous madwoman than Shakespeare’s ‘Ophelia’. Gertrude describes her, in death, as having ‘fantasticke Garlands’ of ‘Crow-flowers, Nettles, Daysies, and long Purples,’ and ‘Coronet weeds’.

ophelia

As for the Mad Hatter, that’s a whole other post, with far more gruesome connotations, mad as he is from mercury poisoning!

mad hatter

Anyway, it’s good to celebrate the coming fine weather, and I for one certainly have a spring in my step (now, where did that one come from?!)

http://www.opheliapopularculture.com/home/gertrude-s-description-of-ophelia-s-death

http://sabian.org/alice_in_wonderland7.php

http://idiomation.wordpress.com/2011/07/12/mad-as-a-march-hare/

http://www.express.co.uk/news/nature/463047/CHEEKY-Moment-a-mad-March-hare-blows-a-raspberry

http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/John_Skelton

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4 comments

  1. I love the pictures and find Thomas More most interesting, so am glad I clicked on this. I love seeing the changes in the language.

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  2. That hare poking his tongue out is brilliant! Thomas More is definitely an intriguing character – everything I learnt about him reading ‘A Man for all Seasons’ at school was turned on its head when I read Wolf Hall. I’d love to write a novel about him – but I wouldn’t dare try and follow in Hilary Mantel’s footsteps!

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