7

"Oh, you may not think I'm pretty,
But don't judge on what you see,
I'll eat myself if you can find
A smarter hat than me.
You can keep your bowlers black,
Your top hats sleek and tall,
For I'm the Hogwarts Sorting Hat
And I can cap them all.
There's nothing hidden in your head
The Sorting Hat can't see,
So try me on and I will tell you
Where you ought to be.
(Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone)

At first I thought, in the highlighted part, ‘black’ is a modifier and changed its place from ‘black bowlers’, for being sound rhythmical. But it seems like ‘keep something + adjective’ construction; and then the comma after sleek and tall has the meaning of but. Entering into the idea, I got curious as to if the phrase ‘keep your bowlers black’ is a traditional saying or the writer’s invention to denote a dandy style. Knowing not British tradition, it leaves me the vague idea. Would you tell me about the sentence and its background?

7

Your first instinct is correct; this is a noun adjective construction. It does indeed look like the keep something in some condition construction, but that doesn't make sense semantically. It's keep in the sense of retain possession, which is often used to indicate that something else is more desirable or better, as is the case here. The Hogwarts Sorting Hat is the best hat there is, so "you" can keep all the other hats, as they are unnecessary.

Why is the usual word order reversed? Because this is a poem and the author wants to maintain a meter. Black bowlers would make two stressed syllables sequentially spoken, and break the rhythm.

  • Somehow keep something in some condition sounds right to me. The Hogwarts Hat seems to say "I'm better than those hats even when they're in their best condition (that is, don't judge me by my appearance)." This confidence is strong enough as he says "I'll eat myself if you can find [a] smarter hat than me." – Damkerng T. Jul 21 '14 at 13:24
  • I think ESN is right—I have a hard time making sense of the other interpretation, but I feel it's easy enough to understand these as postpositive adjectives. – snailcar Jul 21 '14 at 15:14
  • @DamkerngT It doesn't make sense to me (esp. given the context) to suggest that the bowlers need to maintain their blackness (thus implying they may become not-black). I agree with your assessment of the Hogwarts Hat's attitude, but I don't see how that could relate to keeping other hats a certain color. – Esoteric Screen Name Jul 22 '14 at 0:35
  • A traditional English bowler hat is black, by definition. The word "black" is just used to fill up the rhythm of the verse. en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Bowler_hat. The informal phrase "You can keep X" means "I (the sorting hat) don't need X," i.e., "I am superior to X". – alephzero Sep 14 '15 at 13:16

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