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shameless pleading

Hell bent for leather

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.

handtalk

Man making his hand talk like a duck, circa 1912.

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.

47 comments to Hell bent for leather

  • Mike Smith

    I wonder if perhaps the “bent” in hell bent for leather refers to the verb “bend” that is still used to in nautical circles to mean putting on more sails and thus increasing the speed of the vessel. To be perfectly precise, one “bends on” a sail, as in, “The wind slackened, so we bent on the Number 1 genoa to make better speed in the light air.”

    I’m a sailor and wannabe etymologist – especially when phrases involve nautical references.

    Love the site.

  • Jim G

    Is it possible that the ‘leather’ refers to the end of the horse itself (alternatively, ‘hell bent for glue”?

  • The phrase makes perfect sense in the lyrics of the theme song for the classical TV show Rawhide. However, one wonders if the Judas Preist song with the same name (Hell Bent For Leather) is only making reference to other songs and narratives while placing motorcycles where horses should be, or if the phrase is/was already common with riders of “Harley Davidson”s as well.

  • anders bredahl

    I believe this phrase sounds as though it originated from a race. Perhaps describing one so determined to win leather that they would ride in any manner neccesary to win.

    Then eventually becoming accepted to be able to describe anyone determined enough to be reckless.

  • Whether we’re talking about the saddle, the crop or the poor horse’s backside, riding fast must be hell for the leather, right? ;-)

  • Susan Thompson

    Could it have anything to do with making the saddles themselves? The warming and stretching of the leather to the saddle?? Or possibly they had the same strange fetishes as ‘The Pony Club’ people who dress up as ponies and riders and enjoy some ‘free time’….!!

  • Shane G.

    It all sounds pretty good but I think I like it coming from the bottle cap of a Big Sky brew!!

  • John

    I think it has something to do with pulling a gun. Like “Slap leather”.

  • hacksawz

    In the ’40s and ’50s, it meant going at or to something fast and furious regardless of the consequences. I haven’t heard it used recently.

  • Judy Olsen

    ‘Leather’ was slang for c*nt.

  • [...] Hell bent for leather « The Word Detective [...]

  • George Starks

    As a kid who cut his teeth on classic movie westerns from the fifties, the phrase, in my mind, hads alwaye referred to quick guns, fast draw, and being ‘hellbent’ to draw faster than your foe, despite the overwelming odds of being unsuccessful. Despite your stuff about ‘horses’, I’ll stick with my own interp.

  • Twoshea

    I always wondered whether the original phrase might have been “hell bent for lather” denoting that the horse would be all lathered up as a result of hard riding.
    Incidentally, I, too, was a lover of Dutch Mill Donuts and, in fact, ate two for breakfast every day to help me when I gave up smoking back in 1990. Always wondered what happened to them. Thanks for the info.

    • dave

      Well, now we know where they went… you ate ‘em all! Two a day… sheesh… that’s 730 a year, from 1990 till 2001 when they disappeared, that’s 8130 donuts…

  • Tealeaves

    And all this time I thought it was hell bent on election!
    Or is that a mondegreen?

    • Inquiring Mind

      stumbled on this neat site.

      I thought it was both… some said hell bent for leather, and some said hell bent FOR election. Regardless of interpretation, we know it means DETERMINED, and heading in a focused direction realllly fast and not stopping.

  • [...] July, Motorcycle Santa hit the road on Interstate 45 “hell bent for leather” on my way to Galveston, Texas. Where is [...]

  • Whether we’re talking about the saddle, the crop or the poor horse’s backside, riding fast must be hell for the leather, right?

  • [...] was also great entertainment. He’d bolt hell-bent-for-leather through our tiny three-room apartment from the kitchen diagonally through the living room to the [...]

  • fil vidovus

    My grandfather told me that the leather in the expression referred to “slapping leather”, (which itself had a double meaning), but generally in the non-sexual sense it had to do with gunfights. As in, “We tried to get ‘em to settle down, but those boys is hell bent for leather.”

  • Well, “bent” means “twisted” and “twisted” means “perverse.” And “leather” has to do with “Sadomasochistic” interests…. tied up with leather… and if you’re twisted and perfected for such things you are going to “Hell,” right? As to “What the hell are you doing?” It actually began as “What in Hell are you doing?” But when kids and stupid people get so excited about a “dirty word” they cain’t think straight.

  • Ray44512

    Reckless determination. Perhaps the song “Hell Bent for Leather” explains it:
    http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=wkAZBmTxDdY&feature=related

  • George Hanover

    What is missing in the discussion is the American usage of “hell”–as in “give ‘em hell” and a favorite where I live, “particular hell”. In this use, “hell” seems to mean “tough”, “difficulty” and “hardship”–or even physical torture. That has to be borne in mind: hell for leather was that you rode so hard it was “hell” on the leather (very hard on the leather). I think the responder to the original query missed this common usage of “hell”.

  • George Hanover

    Also I must add, this reminds me of the silly American phrase “the proof is in the pudding”. Now that is a dumb one, because “the proof of the pudding is in its taste” or words to that effect–so you have Americans buggering up all sorts of pretty, colorful expressions by saying them all wrong. Same is true for the misuse of the two phrases, “hell-bent” and “hell on leather” (correct usage) which somehow comes out as “hell for leather”.

    • LuLu

      George…my background is British, and you are right that through time things get changed a bit, so that it gets confusing as to what possibly it could have meant!!! “the proof is in the pudding” is actually not in the ‘pudding’ but in the putting. The complete phrase is.. “the proof is in the putting thereof”. I think because, especially the American (of which I am 1st generation)tends not to enunciate the “t”, but makes it sound like a “d”…is how putting became pudding…

  • George Hanover

    A final thought: “hell for leather” is right…”hell on leather” wouldn’t be used in such slang language, I was wrong about that little item. The example quoted about riding “hell for leather” is right because he’s being asked to ride in such a way that it is literally “hell” on the leather.

  • joe cairo

    “Hell Bent” means pulled from the straight path of virtue, forsaking common-sense for a thrill. Tossing Caution to the winds, so to speak.

    “For Leather refers to the saddle you’d need to ride horse for a distance at speed. Only a jockey would carry a whip.

    Being “bent” on something is to have a predilection for it, or something a bit more obsessive.

    “Hell-bent for glory” is another variation of the phrase which underscores the zeal in which being “hell-bent” is often viewed.

  • SweetViolet

    Y’all can second-guess all you want, but I grew up with folks who talked like this and I have to tell you, all the speculation in the world doesn’t change what it means: moving real fast and determined-like.

    Both my father and my grandfather (who was born in he 19th century) used the phrase. An example from my granddad, describing an adventure of one of his dogs: “And there he come outta them woods, runnin’ hell bent for leather for the pond, a whole swarm of honey bees, mad as hornets, on his tail!”

  • Don’t know for sure. But I do know I’ve heard it forever on the Racetrack. Since I was a teen anyway. I’ll be 60 this year, and will still be riding “hell bent for leather” at times. We have the fastest horses alive, and Thoroughbreds are way less predictable than motorcycles. Trust me, I’ve ridden both since the 60′s.

  • In the UK it is just “hell for leather”

    • LuLu

      Yup!! I was just wondering if it might mean that it would be riding so fast that it would be ‘hell (but) for leather’…It’s a thought. Since no one knows for sure…it might be as good as any. That if it wasn’t for the leather saddle, under you, it would be hell on the backside to ride possibly far that fast???????? Lots of expressions end up with some words missing over time.

  • Word Nerd

    Thanks for this; the origin of the phrase has been driving me nuts for years, because it never quite made sense.

    However, I want to qualify your definition of Hell. Hell is not Paramus, New Jersey unless you believe that a town with about five major shopping malls (consumerism run amok)conveniently located about 20 minutes from Manhattan but with much lower sales tax, is the most unbearable spot imaginable. Chances are, like most people, you just took a cheap shot at New Jersey and threw in Paramus because it is a funny name. By the way, Paramus is a native American word meaning “field of wild turkeys.” You’re welcome :-)

  • Amanda

    I always thought it was a phrase from cowboy vernacular about driving cattle, i.e. “Rawhide”. The leather would refer to the whips used to drive the herd and to the cattle’s bitter end.

  • Dave

    what about, gettig ready to be whipped?

  • Ed miller

    I thing the phrase leather means a gun holster. Hell bent on using your gun instead of giving in or working it out.

  • Gordon

    Note — This is a better copy. Please disregard yesterday’s post.

    In my experience, “bending leather” describes a process that produces a useful form of leather from rawhide. This, in turn, a leatherworker (or a field improviser, like a cowboy) can use to produce a leather product (e.g., a saddle, or a holster), or repair something made of leather. For example, on http://www.tandyleatherfactory.com/en-usd/product/european-single-bend-cowhide-tooling-leather-9038-472.aspx, the product description includes the following: “The process begins with premium Scandinavian cowhides which are then tanned to meet the specifications of the finest bag manufacturers in Europe. From these hides, the choicest portions, the single bend is cut. Not only are these bends pretty and clean, but they are a joy to carve, producing the color and detail you would expect from a premium carving leather.”
    So, my conjecture is that whoever crafted this saying might have meant to describe the taking of some of the very fabric of Hell itself, and “bending it for leather.” Message is that whoever would do such a thing is a really tough hombre. Shades of “Ghost Riders in the Sky” . . .

    My Brass Farthing, anyhow !!

  • vaquero

    Hell bent for leather = means the fast-horse/bronc rider would surely be tossed, killed and headed for hell if it were not ‘for’ grabbing “leather” = the saddle horn to hold on– In the day great pride was taken to stay in the saddle in almost all normal to radical conditions with balance and coordination & ‘ ‘grabbing leather’ usually meant things were out of control = dangerous.

  • Beth Jinkerson

    The rawhide song is clearly discussing the cattle being driven rather than the horse being ridden. The “doggies” were on their way (hell-bent, as in come hell or high water) to becoming leather goods.

  • RIKKI TARR

    SOUNDS TO ME THAT IT REFERS TO, ONES..avid DETRERMINATION TO REACH A DESTINATION AT THE GREATEST SPEED POSSIBLE (ON HORSE-BACK ) OR.. THAT SAME DETERMINATION IN THE DRAWING OF ONES GUN FOR A GUN FIGHT .

  • [...] Then I wanted to use the phrase, ‘Hell bent for leather,’ but I wasn’t sure I was using it correctly (or even if I made the phrase up entirely). Another quick search, and bang, there it was, thanks to The Word Detective. [...]

  • jolly

    I always thought “leather” referred to cattle and the phrase “hell-bent for leather” was referring to the speed the cowboy and his horse had to maintain to chase down and round up a herd that was stampeeding.

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