It’s sometimes interesting to look at words, or phrases, or sayings, and think about their actual meaning. These days, with all the resources of the internet available, it isn’t too difficult to find their derivation. There is a marvellous on-line dictionary of etymology (the meaning, origin and development of words – their history if you like!) –
Here, Lois Elsden ponders on a well-known phrase:
I was thinking about nineteen to the dozen (not ten or thirteen or fifteen to the dozen, but nineteen) when my friend David asked about the expression ‘hell-bent for leather‘; I’d never really thought about it before – but I understood ‘hell-bent‘ meaning a determination to get somewhere or to do something, even though it might not be wise, and ‘hell for leather‘ the same.
‘Bent’ is a tense of the verb ‘to bend’ (and apparently it has at least twenty-three definitions – well, I will look at them another time!) Here bend means to go in a particular direction, so hell-bent is going towards hell – although not literally! It can be a real determination – like me, I am hell-bent on finishing my next novel, ‘Earthquake’, or it can mean going somewhere without deviation or delay, probably at full speed and maybe not taking much care – ‘he was hell-bent on getting to the pub before closing time’.
There is a completely different expression, which also means going somewhere at full speed, without deviation or delay, and possibly without taking much care, and that is ‘hell for leather‘ means at breakneck speed or very fast.
I’ve come across a couple of different explanations of the ‘hell for leather’ expression:
- it originally referred to riding on horseback – so the leather was the saddle, or the horse, or the crop or whip used on the poor animal
- it originally meant a long walk, tough on the shoe leather
- it originally meant in the wild west that a stock animal, cow, bull, bullock, horse was being difficult
- it originally meant as above but that the naughty creature would be slaughtered and turned into leather
I tend to think, for no reason that the first on is the true explanation.
I’ve also come across different origins for the ‘hell for leather’ expression:
- Kipling – 1899 “The Valley of the Shadow.”
- American slang from the Wild West – anytime in the late nineteenth century
- I found an unsupported suggestion that it came from an archaic turn-of-the-nineteenth century phrase ‘hell for ladder/hell falladerly/hell faleero’ – I have never heard it and cannot find any substantiating evidence for it; I think it was one of those internet things which someone made up, a speculation on the phrase, and personally I think it is nonsense – however, I apologise and retract with pleasure if anyone can tell me that these phrases exist!
The ‘hell-bent‘ and ‘hell for leather‘ have been conflated (my new favourite word) to become ‘hell-bent for leather!
There were two films, ‘Hell Bent For Leather’ 1960 starring Audie Murphy, and ‘Hell For Leather’ 1998, ‘a frenzied leather and oil spectacular, a biker-opera’
You can also find Hell For Leather cricket bats (the balls are made of leather)
…and motorbikes (bikers’ gear is ‘leathers’)
© Lois Elsden 2017
Since writing this, Lois’s latest novel has been published as an e-book: