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shameless pleading

Whitleather, tough as

Tanned, tough and mysterious.

Dear Word Detective:  I’ve heard a quaint little phrase for describing resilience nearly all my life, but have no idea if ever such a product exists.  Cobblers, makers of leather articles and tack have looked askance at me when I enquired of the item in question.  From whence did this arise:  “as tough as whit leather”?  Thank you for any assistance you may offer, or even for an incredulous look. — Mark.

Don’t worry — I don’t do incredulous looks.  I learned years ago to assume that if I’ve never heard of the word or phrase a reader is asking about, it simply means that my education is incomplete, not that the reader is loco in the coco, as my father used to put it.  Of course, I do get the occasional inquiry from Planet Non Compos, but I can usually spot those from the exclamation marks and creative capitalization in the subject line.

I’d never heard of “whit leather” before your question arrived, but you seem to be in good company wondering about the phrase “tough as whit leather.”  Wandering through Google, I came across a passage in Tom Wolfe’s 2001 novel “A Man in Full” in which a character is musing on the women in his life:  “Serena … not even thirty yet and already tough as whit leather … How the hell had that expression floated into his head? … His daddy used to say it all the time … Never could figure out what whit leather was….”  I wonder if Wolfe himself ever looked up “whit leather.”  I suppose he must have, just in case it turned out to be something scandalous (which, as Robert Browning discovered, is a real danger when you use a word you don’t understand).

In this case, however, “whit leather” is entirely proper and quite interesting.  It’s simply an alternate form of “white leather,” and is usually spelled as one word (“whitleather”).  The form “whitleather” dates back to the mid-14th century in its literal sense, and has been used figuratively since the early 17th century.

“Whitleather,” as it turns out, is leather, often goatskin, that has been tanned and treated with alum and salt.  That process not only lightens the color of the leather, but also renders it soft and pliable, yet very strong and tough, making it a popular material for straps and thongs.  Whitleather also used to be known as “alum leather” and “Hungarian leather,” and a tanner who made whitleather was known as a “whittawer,” the archaic verb “to taw” meaning (what else?) “to prepare leather by steeping in alum and salt.”  I’m not a big leather buff (I’ve been wearing the same belt for nearly 20 years, in fact), but I’ll bet there’s an easier way to make white leather today.

The phrase “tough as whitleather” in a figurative sense meaning “tough, hardened, resilient,” often applied to a person, has been popular since the 17th century (“A widow o forty-five, As has sludged like a horse all her life, Till ‘er’s tough as whit-leather..,” D.H. Lawrence, 1913).  But “whitleather” has also been used, figuratively, in comparisons of softness and even paleness (“Her eyes grew preternaturally pale, and her lips wan as whit-leather,” 1839).

Interestingly, another use of the word “whitleather” since the 18th century has been as a synonym for the “paxwax,” the tough, thick ligament connecting the skull of a large quadruped (horse, ox, etc.) to its spine, thus supporting its head.  This use of “whitleather” is probably derived from the ligament’s similarity to strong thongs made of “whitleather.”

11 comments to Whitleather, tough as

  • Harold Russell

    This will betray the large gaps in my literary education – but I am not familiar with the Robert Browning anecdote mentioned above. Would you be so kind as to enlighten me?

  • admin

    Sure, but I should warn folks that the answer is “not safe for work,” i.e., contains content that some may find offensive.

    See Wikipedia and Language Log.

  • cyranorox

    is it not the root of the other euphemism, ‘pussy’, via Cockney rhyming slang? ie, ‘T—, T—, pussy cat’?compare Fork, Fork, Duke of York ; fork= hand ,and Duke becomes the word for hand or usually fist.

  • TEDD CARMICHAEL

    I AM 87 YEARS OLD, AND MY MAMA USED THIS TERM EVERY TIME WE HAD MEAT FOR DINNER THAT WAS NOT TO HER LIKING. I NEVER KNEW WHAT IT MEANT, AND I DOUBT MAMA DID EITHER. BUT TODAY, AT LAST, WHEN THE TERM CAME TO MIND, I LOOKED IT UP. NOW MY MIND’S AT EASE.

  • JO ETTA JOHNSON

    Yep! Heard this term all my life (I’m 67), but never knew its origin until today. Thanks!!!

  • Bonnie bibbee

    My grandmother used this term quite often. I never really knew what it meant . Thanks

  • The only difference between TEDD CARMICHAEL’S comments on March 28, 2012 and mine is that I’m 79.
    April 13 2013

  • Dennis Hall

    Same as Tedd Carmichael’s, except it was father in law who used it all his life. He’s been gone for years and I’m 71.

  • Jeff C

    My 85 year old Mom–who has Altztimers and is living with us– uses this saying to describe my wife’s cooking–especially with meats Lolol.

  • brandy mills

    I maybe the only person old enough to know what the phrase tough as whit leather is…
    My grand mother cooked this white leathery meat which was a piece of muscle tendon. for us kids to chew on, and we really did have to chew… That meat was so tough you chewed your jaws numb trying to soften it. But while we waited for a meal to be finished, our whit leather would hold us over til then.
    We loved it! tasted good too, don’t ask me what she did to favor this meat, but you could string a piece off ..just like string cheese.!!
    I don’t know if it came off the cows or the pigs.. But there would be one big muscle piece that was like that.. Ahh.. to have a piece of whit leather now..

  • My grandfather, a butcher, would cut up meat to feed to his greyhounds. Occasional he would hand me a piece of “whitleaher” and say, “try to break it.” Of course I couldn’t, but later in life I wondered just what part of the cow it came from. Never knew a modern butcher in any meat market that knew what I was talking about. For the record, I’m 87.

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