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shameless pleading

Hat Trick

Forget it Jake, it’s cricket.

Dear Word Detective: I have been watching the Olympics up here in Canada, and I keep hearing about “hat tricks.” One of the Canadian women scored three goals in an important soccer match — hat trick. Another, more prominent, athlete won three gold medals — again a hat trick. So I understand that it refers to an individual doing three of something. But what does this have to do with hats? — Harold Russell.

Um, is it safe? Is it safe? I know I sound like the evil Nazi dentist in Marathon Man, but I’ve been hiding from the Olympics for, gosh, must be a couple of months now. I haven’t looked at the TV news or most of the internet at all, but the few headlines that managed to sneak through my blindfold (metaphorical, of course) tended to indicate that the Olympics had taken up permanent residence, like the second cousin who crashes on your couch for a few weeks in July and is somehow still there on New Year’s Eve. So is it over? What year is it?

Speaking of years, I just checked and it turns out that the last time I answered a question about “hat trick” was way back in 1997, which was before Facebook or Twitter or any of the other things I wish it were still before so we could stop them. The slightly mortifying aspect of the fifteen years since I wrote that column is that I still don’t entirely understand the particulars of the term’s origins. I know where and when it first appeared, but the exact situation it described remains as opaque to me today as it was then. You’ll understand in a moment.

“Hat trick” is a term used in sports to describe a single player or athlete scoring three goals (or whatever) in one game or match. So if I were to score three goals in quick succession in a hockey game (after first learning to skate, in my case), that would be hailed by the gang in the broadcast booth as a “hat trick.” The term is also used by extension for a threefold success in nearly any other activity, from selling three used cars in one afternoon to getting yourself arrested three times in a row for mopery in Pittsburgh. Pittsburgh is very strict about mopery. Don’t ask.

The term “hat trick” first appeared in Britain, in the late 19th century, and it comes from the game of cricket, which is where things get a little bit sticky, explanation-wise, because I have never understood cricket. But according to the Oxford English Dictionary (OED), a “hat trick” means “The feat of a bowler who takes three wickets by three successive balls: originally considered to entitle him to be presented by his club with a new hat or some equivalent.” I suppose a really good player would have had to rent a room to store all those nifty hats; that’s probably why they eventually switched to rewarding athletic success with buckets of money.

“Hat tricks” are noted in other sports as well, most notably horse racing, where a “hat trick” consists of a single jockey winning three races in one day. In hockey, there are two kinds of “hat tricks,” the simple sort being one player scoring three goals in one game. When a hockey player scores three goals in succession with no other scores interrupting, it’s called a “natural hat trick.” There’s also a “hat trick” in baseball, which consists of a player hitting a single, a double, a triple and a home run all in one game. This sort of hat trick is, unsurprisingly, quite rare, so it would be slightly tacky on such an occasion to point out that “hat trick” in this sense describes four, not three, events.

I should probably note, just for the record, that “hat trick” can also mean, according to the OED, “Any trick with a hat, e.g., one performed by a conjurer.” I’m hoping there’s a special term for a magician who manages to produce three rabbits from the same hat. On such an occasion, of course, a new hat would probably be very welcome.

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