As mad as an atter

In Dovedale Griff near Dalby Forest volunteering with the National Trust when this little beauty was discovered in one of their reptile habitats.

Now I have it somewhere in the back of my mind that “an Adder” was originally “a Nadder”. No idea where this came from, I could well have dreamt it. But Google tells me that the word “adder” comes from an Old English word for the viper naeddre. Interestingly the Welsh word for snake is neidr.

An alternative etymological theory is that the word “adder” derives from the Old English attorlaðe which was the name of a particular species of grass used in a 10th-century recipe for a snake bite antidote. In some parts of the country, the word “adder” is still pronounced “atter”.

“Mad” also originally meant venomous hence the saying “as mad as an atter” or as poisonous as our only native viper. Some people, of course, may dispute this, thanks to Lewis Caroll who made a joke in his Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland. This stuck somewhat in the public imagination, so today many people believe the saying comes from the hatmakers’ use of a mercuric compound to stiffen felt and make a sheen for their hats leading to mercury poisoning with the milliner suffering from a kind of dementia. This symptom was first recognised in Russia in 1829, coincidentally the same year as the saying “as mad as an atter” first appeared in print, in Blackwood’s Edinburgh Magazine.
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