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Hyphenation and splicing

Posted by R. Berg on January 06, 2003

In Reply to: Need derivation help posted by TheFallen on January 06, 2003

: : Can anyone help me with the derivation and meaning for the phrase "hell bent for leather"? Thanks

: From my (UK) point of view, this seems to be a mixing of two separate yet similar expressions, namely "hell bent" and "hell for leather", the former meaning utterly determined whatever the consequences, and the latter meaning with maximum speed or effort. A search of our archives however (see link below) reveals that in the US at least, this mingling is not uncommon, even though the online American Heritage Dictionary shows the phrase "hell-for-leather" as being hyphenated, and therefore extremely unlikely to have an erroneous "bent" spliced into it.

: Hell for leather is a phrase, according to both our own archives and other word-oriented websites, first used in print by Rudyard Kipling in 1889. The educated guess is that Kipling, who spent time in British colonial India, may have been quoting army slang referring to the wear and tear inflicted on a saddle (or maybe a riding crop) when riding a horse flat-out. They were very big on polo in India in those days, and the dry and dusty Indian climate was undoubtedly Hell for their leather.

: Hell-bent on the other hand (also hyphenated acording to the online American Heritage Dictionary), although also first appearing in the 19th century, seems to have its derivation from expressions such as someone being so determined on something that he'd be prepared to "go to the gates of Hell itself", "bent" being in the sense of "directed" or possibly "focussed", as in "he bent to his task".

"Hyphenated, and therefore extremely unlikely to have an erroneous 'bent' spliced into it": It isn't safe to make any inferences about the development of a folk phrase from what a dictionary says is or isn't hyphenated. American writers ignore dictionaries (and style manuals) like crazy where hyphens are concerned. Speakers have hyphenation even less in mind than writers do.