Hell is for horsies.
Dear Word Detective: “Hell bent for leather.” Now there’s got to be a story there! And it just happens to be one of my favorite expressions. — Tabitha, Bath, UK.
Leather? Well, whatever floats your boat. Personally, I could see going “hell bent for pizza” or “hell bent for doughnuts.” Speaking of doughnuts, I have an outrage to report, albeit a bit belatedly. When I lived in New York City, the stores sold blue and white boxes of Dutch Mill All-Natural Doughnuts. They were wonderful (picture that word in italics and bold-face). But, sometime around 2001, an evil competitor bought Dutch Mill and put them out of business. That’s bad, but the worst part is that if you ask for Dutch Mill doughnuts in a NYC deli today, nobody remembers them. Incredible. It’s like forgetting Casablanca, Gone with the Wind, or the first Tremors movie. It’s an outrage.
Oh well, back to work. There are three elements to “hell bent for leather,” an American invention that first appeared in print at the end of the 19th century meaning “at breakneck speed; recklessly determined.” “Hell,” of course, is the Bad Place, considered throughout human history to be located in either the Underworld or Paramus, New Jersey. “Hell” has also long been used as an intensifier, lending force to a proclamation, question or insult (e.g., “What the hell are you doing?” doesn’t really have anything to do with Hell.)
“Bent,” an adjective formed from the verb “to bend,” is here used in the sense of “directed on a course” with implications of “determined, resolute.” Put together, “hell bent” (sometimes spelled as one word, “hellbent”) has, since the early 18th century, meant “recklessly determined to do something at any cost; doggedly determined.” It’s a bit unclear whether the original sense was “willing (and possibly likely) to go to hell to achieve one’s goal” or just “really, really determined,” but the bottom line is that it’s best not to interfere with someone “hell bent” on anything (“I know your kind — hell-bent to spend what you cash in,” 1910).
The truly odd thing about “hell bent for leather” is that it appears to be a combination of two other phrases: “hell bent” and “hell for leather,” which also dates to the late 19th century. “Hell for leather” specifically referred to riding a horse very fast, the “leather” in question being either the saddle or, more likely, the leather crop used to “incentivize” the poor horse. Rudyard Kipling seemed especially fond of the phrase (“Here, Gaddy, take the note to Bingle and ride hell-for-leather,” Story of the Gadsbys, 1889), and probably contributed to its popularity. “Hell bent for leather” doesn’t make any more literal sense than “hell for leather” did, but the fact that “hell bent” is more widely understood undoubtedly led to the fusion of the two phrases.