In North America, It’s A Hat or a Baseball Cap
I was recently in Tokyo, and was confused when one of the staff members in Starbucks walked by me and said “nice cap!”. He was referring to the baseball cap I was wearing. And his English pronunciation was perfect! But I didn’t understand him because of an important difference between hat and cap. In North America, we rarely call it a “cap”. In my experience, we say “baseball cap” or “hat”.
Indeed, if someone in North America says “hat”, they probably mean “baseball cap”.
In Season 2, Episode 21 of Friends, The One With The Bullies, Chandler has his hat stolen by some bullies. (Notice I say “hat”, which you should almost automatically assume means “baseball cap”). Over a span of 5 minutes, the characters use the word “hat” almost ten times, to describe the baseball cap.
Video: Using ‘Hat’ instead of ‘Cap’
These days, in North America, if you hear the word “cap”, you think of something from 100 years ago. It sounds like something a grandfather would wear.
In the clip below from the Simpsons, Bart needs a lot of money (USD $200). His mom, Marge, is telling him that he should save money. She sings a very old song, that is filled with references to things from 75-100 years ago.
The first line of lyrics is:
“When you get a penny from a chum, don’t just buy some bubble gum”.
There’s so much about this that’s old. First off, pennies ($0.01) do not have much value these days. Second off, the word “chum” to describe friend is not common anymore. Finally, you can no longer buy bubble gum for 1 penny in the United States. I think the cheapest price is probably 5 cents, now.
The second line of lyrics is:
“When you find a nickel in the snow, don’t just blow it on a picture show.”
Once again, there are old words here, such as “picture show”, to describe the movie theatre. Most importantly, a nickel ($0.05) can no longer pay for a movie, these days (the cost is about USD$10.00-$25.00).
So, with all of that for context, consider that Marge is telling Bart to take his pennies and nickles and “Put it in your cap! Put it in your cap!“.
Video: ‘Cap’ is a very old word to describe Hat
This is good proof that the word “cap” is not a modern word for hat.
And this is why Bart responds to her saying, “I don’t have a cap.” Because it’s not 1932 anymore.
Nothing is 100%. Some People Still Say ‘Cap’
There are still those people that will say “cap”.
Here’s a great example from New Era Website, a company that makes baseball caps. They are interviewing different hat owners. Notice how most people in this video just say “hat”.
But notice also that the video starts by calling it a “New Era Cap”.
Also, notice that some of the people being interviewed say both Hat and Cap.
But this guy says only “hats”.
And in this video from GQ, they switch back and forth between “hat” and “Baseball cap”.
Finally, here’s an sample video from Seinfield – which takes place in New York, just like Friends. Seinfield is slightly older than Friends. Notice how they use “cap” almost exclusively here.
Maybe the say “cap” so much, because it’s an old clip.
It may also because the hat was introduced in this clip as an Orioles cap.
And that’s a key point, I think. I think it only feels natural to say “cap” if there’s an adjective in front of it, like this:
- Baseball cap
- Fitted cap
- New Era® cap
- Orioles cap
But, if you have even a slight hint of an accent from your first language, and you say “cap” to describe a hat, then I imagine you’re going to sound less natural than if you said “hat” or “baseball cap”.
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