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Shouldn’t it be “Hat on a Cat” instead of "Cat in the Hat"? The hat is sitting on the cat. If it was a cat in a hat, it seems like the cat would be completely in the hat.

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    I'm voting to close this question as off-topic because it is about a title of a work of art, which is chosen by the artist. Discussing reasons for naming works of art does not contribute to learning the language. – laugh Nov 4 at 11:51
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    @laugh It is also the name of the character in the book, whose name is also simply a description of him. The Cat in the Hat is a cat in a hat. This is ordinary enough English that this question is valid. – CJ Dennis Nov 4 at 12:21
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    @laugh it sounds like OP didn't know that Dr. Seuss employed the English language in unusual ways. Understanding and being able to distinguish artistic license from normal use is certainly part of learning the language. – Justin Lardinois Nov 4 at 21:51
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    See also: Puss in Boots – A C Nov 6 at 6:32
  • There's also the saying 'cat in the bag', make sure not to confuse it with that. – Mast Nov 6 at 12:37
64

Presumably, you are talking about this cat:

enter image description here

If not, that's OK.

Hat on a cat describes a hat being atop a cat, as you say. Cat in the hat can mean what you describe, the cat being inside the hat (e.g. the cat being inside a much larger hat). However, there is a different usage of in here:

in
9. preposition
If you are dressed in a piece of clothing, you are wearing it.
He was a big man, smartly dressed in a suit and tie.
...three women in black.
(Collins Dictionary)

In other words, we can use in [article/piece of clothing] to mean that someone or something is wearing the clothing. So we understand that the cat is wearing the hat, like above. This usage of in is common:

  • the man in the red shirt
  • the girl in the skirt
  • the boys in blue* [= the boys wearing blue attire]
  • the baby in the skeleton costume

*As @ShadowRanger mentions, the cops are sometimes referred to as the boys in blue, but actually I had the Los Angeles Dodgers and their iconic white and blue uniforms in mind at first (too soon!!). Regardless, this broadly applies to anyone in any color clothing. The context will make the meaning clear.

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    "The boys in blue" is an idiom meaning "the cops" (whether or not their uniforms are actually blue, though they frequently are). The association with the police overrides the meaning you're giving here. – ShadowRanger Nov 3 at 23:45
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    If you are reading Dr. Seuss, keep in mind that he has a very unique writing style that's different from typical written English. E.g. "You've never yet met a pet I bet as wet as they let this wet pet get!" – MooseBoys Nov 4 at 4:36
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    Also, Poetry in general frequently uses unusual phrasing for better rhythm, sound, style, and/or effect. It's not just Dr. Seuss. – Jack Aidley Nov 4 at 16:42
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    There's nothing unusual or specifically poetic about this phrasing. It's perfectly normal to say "I'm the one in the red baseball cap" if you were trying to help someone find you in a crowd, for example. – JimmyJames Nov 4 at 19:32
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    @ShadowRanger (or the Chelsea football team, or the Indian cricket team, or soldiers of the Union during the US Civil War, or ..., effectively enough examples that it does not override the meaning given here) – muru Nov 5 at 5:38
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The other answers do a fine job explaining how the you can use in to describe someone wearing clothing. However, there is another difference between the two alternatives you give that I would like to highlight.

The phrase "cat in the hat" focuses on the cat (who is wearing a hat), while the phrase "the hat on the cat" focuses on the hat (which is being worn by the cat). When using the phrase without the context of a sentence (e.g. as the title of a book) this is a simple matter of which of the two you want to focus on.

However, when using the phrase as part of a sentence, this becomes a lot more relevant. Consider the following two sentences:

The cat in a hat is black

The hat on the cat is black

The first sentence is about a black cat wearing a hat. The second sentence is about a cat wearing a black hat.

6

You can also use in to mean dressed or attired in something. I would expect this usage came from French.

  • the man in the suit
  • the woman in the pretty sun dress
  • a boy in a bathing suit
  • the girl in an orange wig
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    Seems unlikely to have anything to do with French. The OED's oldest citation for this sense of in is from Old English (i.e. before the Normal conquest). – Colin Fine Nov 3 at 16:44
  • @ColinFine Norman perhaps? – Dawood says reinstate Monica Nov 4 at 4:36
  • @DawoodibnKareem: Oops! – Colin Fine Nov 4 at 10:03
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    Francophones don't use "dans" ("in") in that sense, at least not in modern usage. We use "with". So we say "L'homme avec l'habit" ("the man with the suit") to mean "the man in the suit". – ikegami Nov 6 at 10:02
4

Also, in the story, there are a series of recursive cats in corresponding hats. A cat's hat in that context is actually the hat belonging to their host cat, which they are in fact positioned entirely within. Not for nothing.

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    That was from the exciting sequel "The Cat in the Hat Comes Back" (which I think was better than the first one). I've used the sequence of recursive cats as an example when teaching about recursive data types in programming classes. – John Coleman Nov 6 at 2:08
3

The Cat: Because it's a specific cat having a specific identity and/or personality. If it were about any cat, it would be A Cat.

In: Because he's wearing it. If you are wearing an article of clothing you are dressed in that article of clothing. On a cat means the hat is sitting on top of a cat but the cat isn't wearing it. The cat just happens to be existing underneath the hat. It would not have the same meaning. It must be In because the cat is wearing the hat, not just sitting underneath it.

The Hat: Because the hat is also special. If it were just about a cat that wears any of a number of different hats it would be called The Cat In A Hat. But this book is about a specific cat and a specific hat.

  • Could the same thing be said if they said, “The cat under the hat”? – Lee Sam Nov 5 at 4:34
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    @LeeSam "The cat under the hat" brings to mind a small cat hiding entirely underneath/inside a much larger hat (that's probably on the floor). I think "in" is the only preposition that has the sense "wearing" when applied to clothing. – zwol Nov 5 at 13:16
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    @LeeSam It could be "The cat wearing the hat", but as other answers have pointed out, the title was probably chosen primarily for how it rhymed. – Nate Barbettini Nov 6 at 16:34

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