Q From Martin Toseland, London: My grandmother, from Lincolnshire, regularly compared something to Dick’s hatband, a puzzling allusion that I’ve never since quite sorted out. Can you help?
A In truth, nobody has quite got to the bottom of this one. It was once commonly encountered in phrases like as tight as Dick’s hatband or as queer as Dick’s hatband. It means that something is absurd, perverse, or peculiar.
Its earliest appearance in print is in the 1796 edition of Francis Grose’s Dictionary of the Vulgar Tongue. From references in various dialect and local glossaries, it seems to have been widely known in the early nineteenth century. This, for example, turns up in The History and Antiquities of Boston (the original, in your grandmother’s home country of Lincolnshire) by the wonderfully named Pishey Thompson, published in 1856:
“As queer as Dick’s hatband.” Mr. Wilbraham, in his “Cheshire Glossary,” has, “as fine as Dick’s hatband,” and says, that the phrase is very local; but an allusion to Dick’s hatband seems to have reached across the island.
It had by then long since been taken across the Atlantic, since it is referred to in 1848 in A Dictionary of Americanisms, by John Russell Bartlett:
DICK’S HATBAND. This very singular expression I have often heard in Rhode Island. Mr. Hartshorne calls it “one of those phrases which set philologists and antiquarians at defiance.” It is in general use throughout Shropshire, where it is applied as a comparison for what is obstinate and perverse. Ex. “As curst as Dick’s hatband, which will come nineteen times round and won’t tie at last;” “As contrary as Dick’s hatband;” “As false as Dick’s hatband;” “As cruikit as Dick’s hatband;” “As twisted as Dick’s hatband;” “All across, like Dick’s hatband;” “As queer as Dick’s hatband.”
I’ve also found as plain as Dick’s hatband and older than Dick’s hatband in later American works. Clearly an all-purpose expression — it adds emphasis to any occasion.
All well and good, you may agree, but none of this suggests where it comes from. There is a story that it refers to Richard Cromwell, the son of Oliver Cromwell, who briefly took over as Lord Protector of England in 1658 after his father’s death. Alas, he was not the man his father was. He was too amiable, thrust into a position of responsibility at a time of national crisis, and he was unable to reconcile the various factions in the military and Parliament. He was deposed after eight months. The hatband was supposed to be a reference to the crown of England, something he found too tight to wear with comfort.
Nice story, but if true, we would expect to find an example of its use popping up well before Francis Grose mentioned it in 1796. Also, to be strictly correct about it (read pedantic if it makes you happier), Richard Cromwell never had the title of king, which was anathema to the Puritans of the time, and he certainly never wore a crown.
To judge from the evidence, it’s actually of lateish eighteenth-century origin. But where it comes from, and who Dick was, if he was ever a real person, we have no clear idea. An intriguing suggestion I’ve seen is that Dick here was originally Nick, a reference to the devil.