A hat, a hypnotist, and one (partially) bad egg

By Eleanor Maier, OED

The Du Maurier family had several illustrious members. Daphne Du Maurier (1907-1989) is now probably the best-known, a prolific novelist whose writing inspired such films as Rebecca, Don’t Look Now, and The Birds.  Daphne’s father Gerald Du Maurier (1873-1934), in turn, was a famous actor and theatre manager. However, it was Daphne’s grandfather, George Du Maurier (1834-1896), who, through the words he introduced to the English language, may end up having the most enduring legacy.

The hat and the hypnotist

Trilby, published in 1894 and Du Maurier’s second novel, was an instant success. The public were enthralled by his bohemian tale of Trilby O’Ferrall, a beautiful artist’s model who falls under the spell of a controlling hypnotist. Both Britain and America were gripped by ‘Trilby mania’, a phenomenon described disapprovingly by the journalist William Cowper Brann:

The Trilby craze has overrun the land like the ‘grip’ bacillus or the seven-year locust. Here in America it has become almost as disgusting as the plague of lice sent upon Egypt to eat the chilled steel veneering off the heart of Pharaoh the fickle. Everything is Trilby. We have Trilby bonnets and bonbons, poses and plays, dresses and drinks. Trilby sermons have been preached from prominent pulpits, and the periodicals, from penny-post to pretentious magazine, have Trilbyismus and have it bad.

As this passage shows, ‘Trilby’ was used to designate anything and everything associated with or characteristic of the novel. The OED’s entry for trilby n. describes how the word came to mean a foot, a type of shoe, and a particular type of hat having a narrow brim and indented crown. OED’s earlier senses are now obsolete, their usage fading along with the Trilby craze. The hat, however, endures. Interestingly such a hat is never actually mentioned in the novel from which it takes its name; one theory for the appellation is given in the introductory quotation at Trilby n. 2, another is that such a hat appeared in the popular stage version of the novel.

As well as Trilby herself, another character from the novel has also been granted a linguistic afterlife; this is the hypnotist under whose spell poor Trilby falls, a sinister fellow named Svengali. Only a few years after the publication of the book, a Svengali was a type invoked to describe anyone who had mysterious powers of control, as the following quotations show:

1895 Scientific American 24 Aug. 120/2 Niagara Falls will probably be the location of a factory for turning out electric men; not mesmerists or svengalis, but automatons that will run by electricity.

1897 The Green Bag Apr. 142/1 He was a born orator; and if hypnotism had been then a current explanation for moulding the will-power of men, he could have been termed a Svengali, if we assume the jurors to be Trilbys.

Now ‘Svengali’ is a mildly depreciative word for anyone who has a controlling influence over another.

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The egg

As well as being a novelist, George Du Maurier was also an artist and illustrator, with thousands of his cartoons appearing in the satirical magazine Punch. One of his most famous, published in 1895, was the inspiration for his final contribution to the English language. ‘True Humility’ depicts a meek curate trying not to offend his host the bishop and it has the following caption:

Right Reverend Host. ‘I’m afraid you’ve got a bad egg, Mr. Jones!’
The Curate. ‘Oh no, my Lord, I assure you! Parts of it are excellent!’

Henceforth the curate’s egg entered the language, and the phrase is now used allusively to describe anything which is good in parts.

Where next with the OED Online?

  1. With the Historical Thesaurus of the OED you can search for other words for hats over time: others named after people include the Anthony Eden, the Dolly Varden, the Gainsborough, Garibaldi, Monmouth, and Müller (named after a Franz Müller, in whose trial for murder a hat played a key role—see Muller v.).
  2. You can find further examples of names and words elsewhere in Aspects of English: try our article on cocktails or that on the language of textiles.

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