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shameless pleading

Feather in one’s cap

It certainly beats noodles in your hair.

Dear Word Detective: What is the origin of “a feather in your hat”? — Chris.

Ah yes, feathers. Where would we be without feathers? Hopeless, that’s where, for, as Emily Dickinson said in everyone’s 7th grade English class, “Hope is the thing with feathers, that perches in the soul, and sings the tune without the words, and never stops at all.” I’ve always wondered, incidentally, how many birds Emily knew up close and personal, because in my experience they tend to be very judgmental and vindictive. Miss a day filling the feeder and they’re at your window at 6 am, screeching and spitting like little banshees.

Feathers, of course, are the epidermal growths that characterize birds (and apparently certain kinds of dinosaurs) and allow them to fly and supposedly find their own freakin’ food. Sorry. Anyway, feathers are a unique appendage among animals, and as such have caught the linguistic attention of humans pretty much since day one, resulting in a wide range of feather-based idioms and metaphors.

We speak, for instance, of “feathers flying” in an energetic fight between people (whether literal or verbal), by analogy to the effects of an actual bird fight. We say that we are “in fine feather” when we are in good health or sound fortune, from feather condition as an indicator of a bird’s health. “Birds of a feather flock together” draws on the flocking behavior of birds of one kind (“feather”) to describe the “like bonds with like” social habits of humans. The lightness and insubstantial nature of feathers themselves give us “feather merchant” for someone, such as a public relations agent, who dispenses nonsense, and when we are very surprised by something we say “You could have knocked me over with a feather.”

Feathers have been long been used as decoration by humans, of course, and the use of feathers as an element of hats or other headgear has been nearly universal among human cultures, from the plains of North America to the savannas of Africa to the forests of Eastern Europe. A feather added to a hat or headdress to mark a victory or other accomplishment has been common, although a white feather (proof of poor breeding in game fowl) has long been a symbol of cowardice (“No one will defend him who shows the white feather.” 1829).

“A feather in one’s hat (or cap)” has meant a mark of honor or accomplishment in English at least since the early 18th century (“A Feather in his Cap, was the least that was expected for him.” 1736), although a feather in one’s cap had also, somewhat earlier, meant “to be a fool” (“He wore a feather in his cap, and wagg’d it too often.” 1755). Today a metaphorical “feather in one’s cap” is firmly synonymous with “accomplishment” (“A grasp of digital innovation might seem an unusual feather in a rock singer’s cap…” Guardian, 1/11/15).

The popularity of “cap” over “hat” in current usage of the phrase is probably due to the song “Yankee Doodle,” which dates back to the American Revolution: “Yankee Doodle went to town, riding on a pony; he stuck a feather in his cap, and called it macaroni.” The song was originally a British creation mocking the rebels (“doodle” was slang for “fool,” as was “macaroni” for “fop”), and the “feather” in Yankee Doodle’s cap marked him as a simpleton. But after the American victories at Lexington and Concord, colonists hijacked the song to mock the Redcoats, and “feather in his cap” took on a deservedly triumphant meaning.

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