After reading it perhaps a hundred times in reader comments and editorials, I finally looked up the phrase tinfoil hat, which had been puzzling me for years. To give you a sense of how far out of mainstream slang I was, I pictured this hat as something a child would fashion while pretending to be a knight or a prince -- an image that made no sense in the context of paranoia in the Trump White House.
A tinfoil hat really exists, or pictures of adults wearing them exist, because a loony late-19th-century “seer” writing under the name James Bathurst tried to figure whether an “insulative electrical contrivance encircling the head during thought” would protect him from telepathic interference. (He concluded that it would not.) The idea was popularized further by the eugenicist Julian Huxley’s short story “The Tissue-Culture King,” in 1926. But it didn’t really catch on until the turn of our century, when usage shot up like a rocket.
The idea that metal foil can block waves radiating through the air toward your brain isn’t completely nuts. A couple of years ago, the owner of a bar in East Sussex, England, built a Faraday cage to block cellphone signals and thereby encourage his customers to talk more to each other rather than focusing on their phones. “I just wanted people to enjoy a night out in my bar,” he said, and apparently it’s worked. But not only is the Faraday cage a complete enclosure, it also blocks waves that actually exist. What the foil hat is meant to block are efforts to control the user’s mind through ESP, telepathic communication, and other folderol … or, in the case of some of those now accused of wearing or needing tinfoil hats, logical reasoning.
We haven’t used tinfoil, of course, for more than a century. Nor have we tended to cook in tin pots, or gamble using tin horns, which were empty tin cans -- now made, like most other products involving tin, with aluminum. People still said “tinfoil” when I was growing up, but young people today don’t mind the extra syllables, or if they do, they leave off “aluminum,” since supermarket shelves sport no other type of foil.
But tin lives on in the invocation of those hats, pots and horns. The tin-pot dictator began his reign, according to the Oxford English Dictionary, in 1865, the reference being to the cheap or inferior quality of a pot made of tin rather than iron. Cartoons and common lore emphasize the image of a child wearing a pot on his head in order to act like a king (thus, perhaps, my original confusion with tinfoil hat), and the connotation certainly seems appropriate. Recent leaders who have earned scorn as tin-pot dictators include Kim Jong-un, Muammar el-Qaddafi, Recep Tayyip Erdogan, Abdel Fattah al-Sisi … and the current resident of the White House.
The tin pot, in this sense, isn’t far removed from the tin horn. Here again, my original understanding was way off the mark. Putting tin and horn together, I envisioned someone so deaf as to require one of those early hearing aids, the ear trumpet. (Or perhaps I had it mixed up with tin ear.) But no. Where high-flying gamblers in the mid-19th century apparently could afford leather shakers for their ivory dice, “low-class gamblers” shook their bones in old tin cans, known as horns. So anyone who plays for petty stakes or leads a sketchy life but tries to look flashy can be labeled a tinhorn. A tinhorn dictator isn’t quite the same, perhaps, as a tin-pot despot, but neither term is a compliment. And neither, unlike the foil, has switched over to aluminum. Just try to imagine an aluminum-horn, aluminum-pot despot wearing his quaintly shaped aluminum hat. It doesn’t have quite the same tinny ring -- though it might serve, some would say, to hide all that orange hair.