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Tuesday, March 22, 2011

"Mad as a March Hare"

The March Hare from Alice's Adventures in Wonderland by
Lewis Carroll.  Illustration by Sir John Tenniel.  The Hare
wears straw on its head, a sign of madness in Victorian times.

The saying "mad as a march hare" is an old one, and refers to the "madness" exhibited by hares as their breeding season commences, which in Europe is February or March.  Their season actually lasts until September or so, but apparently the first signs of their mating behavior struck an impression.  The saying has been expanded to refer to anyone who exhibits excitable or unpredictable behavior.

This "mad" behavior in hares includes "boxing", leaping over each other, jumping vertically (we call that "bunny bowling" at our house) and other rather frivolous behavior.  It was thought that the "boxing" with their forelegs was a sign of males competing for supremacy (the old testosterone flaring up), but scientists now know that it's the females repelling the males unwanted attentions.

A European hare.

The saying was a common one in Carroll's time.  An early poem referred to it that was written around 1500 - Blowbol's Test (author unknown) - which was first printed by W. C. Hazlitt in 1864 in his book Remains of Early Popular Poetry of England:

Thanne they 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)

In 1528 John Skelton in his Replycacion wrote "Aiii, I saye, thou madde Marche Hare".  The book Magnyfycence in 1529 has "As mery as a marche hare".  The phrase also appears in John Heywood's collection of proverbs which was published in 1546.

The phrase has been in continuous use since the 16th century, but Carroll made it even more popular by naming one of his main characters the "March Hare".  This character is wacky, and always behaves as if it is tea time.  Subsequent interpretations of the Wonderland story always features a crazy rabbit - be it movies, cartoons, anime, or new books.

Thackery Earwicket, the March Hare from Tim Burton's film version of
Alice in Wonderland.

There is a similar tradition about the "myth of the moon gazing hare", which is the pagan belief that seeing a moon gazing hare will bring abundance, growth, and good fortune.  In pagan times the hare was sacred to the goddess Eostre and eventually evolved into the Easter bunny, yet another translation of pagan beliefs.

One can be "mad as a hatter" as well.  Mercury salts once were used in curing pelts from which hats were made.  Hatters and mill workers often inhaled the fumes and suffered from mercury poisoning, which resulted in neurological damage including vision and speech problems.  This phrase was also common in Carroll's time, occurring in print in 1937 in Thomas Chandler Haliburton's The Clockmaker.

The Mad Hatter by Sir John Tenniel.

There are several alternate theories as to the origin of the phrase, including pertaining to an "adder" - whose venom is poisonous.  "Atter" was the Anglo-Saxon word for adder.  Therefore "mad hatter" has been said to mean as angry as an adder.  It's unclear what Carroll believed, however in Through the Looking Glass, the March Hare and the Mad Hatter were friends.

This March has certainly been mad, from crazy weather to natural disasters.  If I see a hare with a hat on I'm running as far away as I possibly can!

All images courtesy of Wikipedia.

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