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To set one's cap

Posted by Victoria S Dennis on November 13, 2005

In Reply to: To set one's cap posted by R. Berg on November 13, 2005

: : How old is the expression "to set one's cap" and where did it originate? This subject came up on a Trollope list recently and we had several theories. It is used to mean deciding to "catch" a particular person for matrimony.

: The first edition of the Oxford English Dictionary has a use in Goldsmith's "She Stoops to Conquer," 1773, as the earliest example. It doesn't explain the origin. By the OED's definition, the phrase is used only of women; men don't set their caps.

: The OED gives another meaning, older and also colloquial: to "have one's cap set" means to be drunk.

Women's caps in the 18th century were made of fine white linen or muslin; they could be ornamented with lace, ruffles and ribbons, and might or might not be starched into shape. (Nowadays we often refer to all such caps as "mob caps", although back then a "mob" was a specific pattern of cap.) If a lady wanted to make an impression on a man she would certainly take care to wear her best cap, and place it on her hairstyle at the most becoming angle possible. This was especially important in the 1770s, when fashionable hairstyles were big and therefore the caps that covered them were even bigger; so if one didn't get the set of one's cap just right, one looked terrible. (VSD)