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Q From Neill Bassford: What the heck does gibus mean? I saw it in a Dorothy L Sayers’ Lord Peter Wimsey mystery. From context it might be an article of clothing, a type of hat perhaps, but I find no mention of it in any of my dictionaries.

A It’s one of those words that have almost entirely gone out of the language because the things they refer to are now rarely used, though gibus is still to be found in several British dictionaries.

Was the book Murder Must Advertise of 1933? In that, Lord Peter Wimsey is in disguise as Mr Breedon; at one point he’s going down in a lift with a woman: “Mr Bredon the ever-polite, expanded and assumed his gibus during the descent, apparently for the express purpose of taking it off to her when he emerged.” The unknowing reader will be puzzled what the object was and how it might be expanded while in a lift.

You’re spot on with your guess. It’s a type of hat. More precisely, it’s a species of top hat, whose crown can be folded flat to make it easier to carry when visiting the theatre. The general name for them is opera hats or crush hats.

The gibus, often with an initial capital letter, was named after the Frenchman Antoine Gibus, who invented it in the early part of the nineteenth century. In French, his name is said roughly as /ʒi:bəs/ Help with IPA, but the English soon changed that to something sounding more reasonable, with an initial soft g, /dʒaɪ:bəs/.

Reference books usually say that M Gibus created it in 1823; my Petit Robert dictionary gives 1834 for the first use of the hat’s name in French. Such hats became popular and the word frequently turns up in English works of the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. By the time that Dorothy L Sayers was writing, it was going out of style, as H G Wells noted in a minor work of 1929, The Autocracy of Mr Parham (“His Gibus hat, a trifle old-fashioned in these slovenly times”). If you ever saw the film Top Hat, you may remember that Fred Astaire popped open a collapsible top hat as part of a routine. That was of the Gibus type.

So far as I know, the first appearance in English was in William Makepeace Thackeray’s Book of Snobs of 1848: “Ask little Tom Prig, who is there in all his glory, knows everybody, has a story about every one; and, as he trips home to his lodgings in Jermyn Street, with his gibus-hat and his little glazed pumps, thinks he is the fashionablest young fellow in town, and that he really has passed a night of exquisite enjoyment.”

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Page created 22 Dec 2007; Last updated 09 Feb 2008