(as) mad as a March hare

 

the vampire rabbit - Newcastle upon Tyne

the vampire rabbit – Newcastle upon Tyne (Northumberland)

 

 

(AS) MAD AS SIMILES

 

Phrases associating animals with madness have long existed. For example, in The Comedie of Errors (around 1594), the English poet and playwright William Shakespeare (1564-1616) used the phrase (as) mad as a buck (bought and sold means betrayed):

(Folio 1, 1623)
– Antipholus of Ephesus. There is something in the winde, that we can-
not get in.
– Dromio of Ephesus. You would say so Master, if your garments
were thin.
Your cake here is warme within: you stand here in the
cold.
It would make a man mad as a Bucke to be so bought
and sold.

The noun buck has been used to denote the male of several animals, in particular of the goat and of the fallow deer, but also of the rabbit and of the hare.

Another phrase associating a male animal with frenzy was (as) mad as a tup (tup denoting a ram). In Archaic words, phrases, etc., of Montgomeryshire (London, 1876), Rev. Elias Owen explained:

“He’s as mad as a tup in a halter.” A ram with a rope around its neck is anything but contented and comfortable—he is restive in the extreme, and although not really insane he has become the synonym for a maniac.

In Notes and Queries (London) of 1st February 1902, under the heading As mad as a tup, a certain J. Holden MacMichael wrote:

In Scotland it is said of a young woman who incontinently seeks the society of men that she “rins like a blind tup-in-the-wind.”

The English Dialect Dictionary (Oxford, 1905), edited by the English philologist Joseph Wright (1855-1930), recorded several similes, not all of them using names of animals:

mad angry – as mad as a bear with a sore luga harea hedgea March harea pipera pown [= ?] handa tupa waspwheelbarrows: very angry.

Other phrases which existed or still exist include:
– (as) mad as a box of frogs
– (as) mad as a brush
– (as) mad as a goose
(as) mad as a hatter
– (as) mad as a hornet
– (as) mad as a meat axe
– (as) mad as a (cut) snake
– (as) mad as a weaver
– (as) mad as a wet hen
– (as) mad as May butter (unsalted butter preserved in the month of May and sometimes used medicinally).

In A Complete Collection of Genteel and Ingenious Conversation, According to the Most Polite Mode and Method Now Used at Court, and in the Best Companies of England (London, 1738), the Irish satirist, poet and Anglican cleric Jonathan Swift (1667-1745) mentioned the proverb butter is mad twice a year, i.e., once in summertime in very hot weather, when it is too thin and fluid, and once in winter in very cold weather, when it is too hard and difficult to spread.

 

(AS) MAD AS A MARCH HARE

 

The first recorded occurrence of the association of madness with March hare is from Colyn Blowbols Testament, an anonymous poem composed around 1500; the poet describes persons “in dronkenesse” who become quarrelsome (Gogmagog was the greatest of the British giants):

(from Remains of the Early Popular Poetry of England, edited by William Carew Hazlitt – London, 1864)
They will kylle in that grete hete [= heat]
Huge Golyas [= Goliath], with their wordis grete,
And also the grete Gogmagog,
Cresced [= crested] worme and the water ffrog.
Than [= then] they begyn to swere [= swear] and to stare,
And be as braynles as a Marshe hare.

The English poet John Skelton (circa 1460-1529) used the simile on several occasions:

♦ in Magnyfycence, a goodly interlude and a mery (before 1504?), the image is positive:

(from The poetical works of John Skelton, edited by Alexander Dyce – London, 1843)
– Courtly Abusyon: What, Fansy, my frende! howe doste thou fare?
– Fansy: By Cryst, as mery as a Marche hare.
     in contemporary English:
– Courtly Abusyon: What, Fansy, my friend! how do you fare?
– Fansy: By Christ, as merry as a March hare.

♦ but in A ryght delectable treatyse upon a goodly garlande or chapelet of laurell (1523), the simile has a negative connotation:

The blaste of ye byrnston blew away his brayne
Masid as a marche hare he ran lyke a scut.
     in contemporary English:
The blast of the brimstone blew away his brain;
Mazed as a March hare, he ran like a scut [= a hare].

♦ and in A replycacion agaynst certayne yong scolers abiured of late, etc., a poem written about 1529, the image is also negative:

(from The poetical works of John Skelton, edited by Alexander Dyce – London, 1843)
I saye, thou madde Marche hare,
I wondre howe ye dare
Open your ianglyng iawes.
     in contemporary English:
I say, you mad March hare,
I wonder how you dare
Open your jangling jaws.

In The supplycacyon of soulys (1529), the English scholar and statesman Thomas More (1478-1535) wrote:

If that man were not for malyce as mad not as marche hare but as a madde dogge that rūneth forth and snatcheth he seeth not at whome: the felowe could neuer elles wyth suche open foly so sodenly ouer se hym selfe.
     in contemporary English:
If that man were not for malice as mad, not as a March hare, but as a mad dog that runs forth and snatches he sees not whom, the fellow could never with such obvious foolishness so rashly make such blunders. 

Mad Tea Party - illustration by John Tenniel for Alice_s Adventures in Wonderland

Mad Tea Party
illustration by John Tenniel (1820-1914) for Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland (1865)

 

The phrase is one of the sources of the March Hare, a character in Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland (1865), by Lewis Carroll (Charles Lutwidge Dodgson – 1832-98):

‘What sort of people live about here?’
‘In that direction,’ the Cat said, waving its right paw round, ‘lives a Hatter: and in that direction,’ waving the other paw, ‘lives a March Hare. Visit either you like: they’re both mad.’
‘But I don’t want to go among mad people,’ Alice remarked.
‘Oh, you can’t help that,’ said the Cat: ‘we’re all mad here. I’m mad. You’re mad.’
[…]
She walked on in the direction in which the March Hare was said to live. ‘I’ve seen hatters before,’ she said to herself; ‘the March Hare will be much the most interesting, and perhaps as this is May it won’t be raving mad—at least not so mad as it was in March.’

The phrase (as) mad as a March hare refers to the fact that, in the breeding season, the hare is characterised by much leaping, boxing and chasing in circles.

(Of Germanic origin, hare is related to Dutch haas and German Hase. The French generic name is lièvre, from Latin lepus/leporis, but the name of the female hare is hase, from German.)

 

FOLK ETYMOLOGY

 

It has often been said that March hare is an alteration of marsh hare, on the basis that the Dutch humanist and scholar Desiderius Erasmus (circa 1469-1536) supposedly wrote, in his Aphorisms, that “hares are wilder in marshes from the absence of hedge and cover”.

In reality, Erasmus never wrote that. In Apophthegmes (London, 1542), the translation of Erasmus’s Apophthegmatum opus, Nicholas Udall (1504-56) used the term harebrainlike. And, in actual fact, what has been attributed to Erasmus first appeared in the appendix to the reprint of the 1564 edition of Udall’s translation, published by Robert Roberts at Boston, Lincolnshire, in 1877. The author of this appendix, a certain Rev. E. Johnson, endeavoured to illustrate the “old vulgar (common) sayings” used by Udall “by parallel modern vulgar sayings”; he ‘illustrated’ harebrainlike with the following:

“Hairbrain” [sic] and “as mad as a March hare” yet common enough. March-hare is Marsh-hare; and from the flatness and bareness of marshes, which are almost destitute of shelter, hares are peculiarly wild and hard to get a shot at.

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