“Hell-bent” and “Hell-for-leather”

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A reader has asked about the expression hell-bent for leather.

The expression fuses “hell-bent” with another expression, “hell-for-leather.”

The bent in hell-bent is the past participle of the verb to bend, a word with at least 23 definitions in the OED.

To be “bent on something” is to be determined to do a specific thing. Ex. He was bent upon becoming Prime Minister. She was bent on proving him wrong.

One of the meanings of “to bend” is “to go in a certain direction.” Literally, then, to be “hell-bent” would mean “going in the direction of hell.” The way we use it, to be “hell-bent on something” means to be wholeheartedly determined to get something done. The OED gives these citations:

1731 Ab-origines in Arms..did then resort, In Haste to Susquehanna Fort, Hell bent on Thoughts of Massacree.

1835 A large encampment of savages,..‘hell-bent on carnage’.

1891The state of Texas, or at least its legislature, went hell-bent for the reform of railroads.

The OED defines “hell-bent” as both adjective and adverb:

hell-bent: adj.   Usually in predicative use, with on, upon, or infinitive. Determined to achieve something at all costs; passionately or recklessly intent.

hell-bent: adv.  In a hell-bent manner; with no effort or resources spared; all out, wholeheartedly, totally; determinedly, doggedly.

The expression hell-for-leather means at “breakneck speed, very fast” and was originally used with reference to riding on horseback. It may have originated with Kipling. The earliest citation in the OED is from an 1889 Kipling story, “The Valley of the Shadow.”

CAPT. M. (Jealously) Then don’t say it! Leave him alone. It’s not bad enough to croak over. Here, Gaddy, take the chit to Bingle and ride hell-for-leather. It’ll do you good. I can’t go.
JUNIOR CHAPLAIN. (Flicking M.’s charger.) That’ll do, thanks. Turn in, Gadsby, and I’ll bring Bingle back–ahem–‘hell-for-leather.’

The fused expression hell-bent for leather (1926) is apparently an American coinage that fuses hell-bent with hell-for-leather and means “recklessly fast.”

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5 thoughts on ““Hell-bent” and “Hell-for-leather””

  1. Excerpt from the “Rawhide” TV show Theme:

    Rollin’, rollin’, rollin’
    Though the streams are swollen
    Keep them dogies rollin’
    Rain and wind and weather
    Hell-bent for leather
    Wishin’ my gal was by my side.
    All the things I’m missin’,
    Good vittles, love, and kissin’,
    Are waiting at the end of my ride

    –from Lyrics (On) Demand

  2. Oh my gosh! Thanks to Don for those lyrics to Rawhide. I sang that song as a little girl and I never knew what that line was saying. I would sing, “Rain and wind and weather. Da-da-dah for leather.” Now I know!

  3. Interesting! I only THOUGHT I knew the complete meaning of the words. Thanks for this post.

  4. People who are referred to as being “hell-bent for leather” could also be people who are simply very determined to get a new pair of chaps or pumps.

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