This week I’m taking a look at the phrase “a feather in your cap. As usual with phrases the exact origin is less than clear-cut but it’s one with plenty of history, all around the world.
Having a feather in your cap has been symbolic of achievement in the English language since at least the 1700s, and probably earlier as the idea was discussed in “Description of Hungary” by Richard Hansard in 1599. Hansard was an English travel writer who explained the Hungarian custom that you could only wear a feather in your cap if you had killed a Turk, their enemies at the time. They claimed one feather per kill. He also said this was an old custom even then (with thanks to The Phrase Finder website).
Feather has been a word since Old English feder which had Proto Germanic roots (fethro) which yielded similar words in Old Saxon, Norse, Swedish, Dutch, German and more.
The Hungarians weren’t the only ones to mark a slain enemy with a feather. Native American warriors would add feathers to their head-dress to mark such things too. Other cultures also observed this idea. It is recorded of the ancient Lycians (a nation in what is now Turkey which existed from the 14th century B.C. to 500 B.C.), China (a peacock feather was given to General Gordon after he put down a rebellion there in the 1800s), and in hunting circles a feather from the first bird killed may be given to the successful hunter for their hat.
The feather in the cap idea is also part of the Yankee Doodle Dandy rhyme where he sticks a feather in his cap and calls it macaroni. It’s not the easiest lyric to understand, is it?
One explanation I found goes like this. Doodle was 1700s British English slang for a fool so calling the person a Yankee Doodle was calling them an American fool – which would make sense as the song was sung by British troops in the American War of Independence.
The word macaroni had nothing to do with the popular pasta shape but actually slang, again, this time for a dandy. The Macaroni Club in London was populated by young aesthetes who liked to show their stylishness by preferring foreign cuisine (including macaroni pasta, presumably). So if the American fool put a feather in his cap and called it macaroni they were trying too hard to be stylish and fashionable and hence were a person to be mocked.
You might need a time-travel machine to go back and see if that explanation makes any sense, but it does at least show that putting a feather in your cap can be done for many different reasons and won’t always make you look impressive.
Until next time, happy reading, writing, and wordfooling,
p.s. Amelia over on the Politics Books and Me blog (about books, authors, and investing) was kind enough to interview me recently. You can check it out here.