Never heard this one before. The expression that I am familiar with and the one that was quite popular when I was growing up, but which I don’t hear around that much anymore, is GOT YOUR HEAD HANDED TO YOU. But, surprisingly, when I looked through my slang dictionaries, I couldn’t fine either of these expressions listed. So, if someone does find them, please let me know because I’d like to hear what they have to say. In the mean time, here’s my understanding of how they are defined and my guess as to where they might have come from.<2006 "This is like in the Army -- left, right, left,'' [[former Gov.]] Davis shrugged. "Look, he [Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger]] said he learned his lesson and he made mistakes. Last year was a lost opportunity. He took on nurses, teachers and firefighters and he GOT HIS HAT HANDED TO HIM.'' —San Francisco Chronicle, 6 January>
Defintion:Today the two expression seem to be used as synonyms (with the ‘head’ version in far wider use) meaning to come out of a contest or situation having done badly, having gotten trounced, beaten soundly, ‘creamed.’ It also has the related meaning of getting verbally assailed, severely censured, upbraided (see 2001 quote below).
It would seem that TO GET YOUR HEAD HANDED TO YOU might be the older phrase, perhaps even from days of yore when such a threat might have been taken literally. However, the earliest example that I could find was from 1952 – not quite days of old, at least not for me!
To GET YOUR HAT HANDED TO YOU sounds like a kinder and gentler version of its nastier relative, and one might assume that they somehow developed in parallel and then eventually merged. However, there is no history before the late 1990s of a nonfigurative existence of the HAT form, as far as I could determine. It’s original meaning had came from the idea of one literally being handed one’s hat and asked to leave – ‘shown the door’ – as is exactly the case in the 1927 quote below. One would then have assumed that at some point in the intervening years the phrase took on a figurative usage with the meaning ‘rejection,’ and that there was an eventual melding, most likely by confusion, of the said two phrases. Trouble is, I can find no record of the expression existing in a figurative form in those years from the 1920s to the 1990s. What it looks like to me is that the HAT version just suddenly emerged as a variation – probably as a result of a mistaken substitution of HAT for HEAD, and just quickly propagated. The first time that it appeared in any ‘major’ newspaper or magazine that I could find was in the New York Times in 2000 (see quote below), and since then it has only appeared there 4 times as opposed to 10 for its relative – which ain’t a whole lot for either of them.<1952 “Mr. Monaghan said that when he took over the Police Department last July ‘You were liable to wake up almost any morning [[during police investigations last July]] and find YOUR HEAD HANDED TO YOU in the press.’”—‘New York Times,’ 24 April, page 22>
<1967 “If the filmmaker attempts to do in equivalent — but original — cinematic terms what the author has done with words, he is likely to HAVE HIS HEAD HANDED TO HIM by purists.”—‘New York Times,’ 10 October, page 56>
<1972 “In the opening of Browne’s game [[chess]] Westerinen of Finland, White provides a little object lessen in How to Fritter Away the Initiative. First, make a few indifferent moves, . . . —then, if your opponent is a grandmaster, just sit back and wait to GET YOUR HEAD HANDED TO YOU—it will almost surely happen.”—‘New York Times,’ 27 February, page D37>
<1989 “The high anxiety about the junk-bond market sent the stocks of takeover targets plunging across the board. ‘The arbs [[a variety of financial trader]] GOT THEIR HEADS HANDED TO THEM,’ said Anson Beard, the chief trader for Morgan Stanley. ‘Very few anticipated that the UAL buyout could fail.’”—‘Time Magazine,’ 23 October>
<1996 “‘People who are shorting this stock are going to HAVE THEIR HEADS HANDED TO THEM.’ said Michael P. DiCarlo, manager of the John Hancock Special Equities fund, . . .”—‘New York Times,’ 28 January, page F4>
<2001 “I was next door when YOU GOT YOUR HEAD HANDED TO YOU. And I heard YOU GET YOUR HEAD HANDED TO YOU.”— Cardozo Studies in Law and Literature,’ Vol. 13, No. 1, Spring, page 49>
So what’s the scoop? GOT HIS HAT HANDED TO HIM is probably the recent (late 1990s) illegitimate offspring of GOT HIS HEAD HANDED TO HIM [1952 or older] resulting from a mistaken substitution of HAT for HEAD in the older figurative expression. However, the HEAD version is far and away the more widely used today and a Google sampling of the various variations of each (using, for example, the pronouns ‘you, him, her, and their’) produces a hit ratio of about 10:1. Although, neither expression is that wildly popular, it seems that they certainly are not so obscure as to not warrant their inclusion in some slang, idiom, or catch phrase dictionary somewhere – so I’m still looking. I’ve got an e-mail into the folks at DARE (Dictionary of American Regional English) and perhaps they may be able to provide us with some further information.<1927 “He described how an unnamed Vice President of a large New York City bank had once submitted a purchase offer to Mr. Ford only to HAVE HIS HAT HANDED TO HIM and the door shown to him by Mr. Ford in perfect silence.”—‘New York Times,’ 5 February, page 7> [[early literal usage]]
<1999 “This is the first time [[professional hockey]] Domi has HAD HIS HAT HANDED TO HIM in a long while, thanks to a left to the temple from Marshall. Just two sounds here: Marshall's knuckle thumping Domi's colossal cranium, then Tie's can hitting the ice.—‘Village Voice,’ 23 December>
<2000 “Some R.N.C. members are saying ‘What is going on here? He’s GETTING HIS HAT HANDED TO HIM and he can’t put down the rebellion.’”—‘New York Times,’ 24 February, page A1> [[said of Gov. G. W. Bush after twin losses to Senator John McCain in Michigan and Arizona in the primaries]]
<2002 “For the Republicans there is Bret Schundler, who won the primary last time on the strength of his conservative agenda and HAD HIS HAT HANDED TO HIM by the voters in the general election.”—‘New York Times,’ 17 November, page NJ2>
<2003 “ ‘The President GOT HIS HAT HANDED TO HIM with the Senate faith-based compromise,’ Anders said. ‘He didn't have the votes because the country is not ready to throw out the Constitution, civil rights laws and allow federally-funded religious discrimination.’” — ‘American Civil Liberties Union’ (aclu.org), 28 April>
<2004 “The victory put the Dons in position to meet Crenshaw in an epic semi-final game [[high school football]], if both Dorsey and Crenshaw won their second round games on Nov. 24. Dorsey played host to Sylmar and Crenshaw faced Venice in a rematch of last' year's playoff where they GOT THEIR HATS HANDED TO THEM 53-0.”—‘Los Angeles Sentinel,’ November 25-December 1, Vol. LXX, Issue 36, page B1>
Ken G – January 7, 2006