A reader coming across this sentence in Arthur Miller’s An Air-conditioned Nightmare (1945) was puzzled by the use of the word let:
Night and day without let the radio drowns us in a hog-wash of the most nauseating, sentimental ditties.
Asks the reader, “Could this be a typo for “without let-up”?
The English word let functions as a verb, a noun, and an adjective. Its use as a noun meaning hindrance or obstacle dates to the twelfth century. An obsolete meaning of let as a verb is “hinder or prevent.” This is the meaning of let in the King James translation of Romans 1:13:
Now I would not have you ignorant, brethren, that oftentimes I purposed to come unto you, (but was let hitherto).
Paul is saying that he wanted to come but was prevented from doing so.
In the Miller quotation, let is a noun, the object of the preposition without. In this context let means, hindrance, stoppage, or obstruction. The “ditties” described are unceasing. They come over the radio without stopping.
Miller could have written, “Night and day without let-up the radio drowns us in a hog-wash of the most nauseating, sentimental ditties.” The thought would be the same, but the connotation would be different. Miller’s intention is to distance himself from what he perceives as mind-numbing and vulgar noise. His feeling about the music is reflected in his choice of words. The word let-up belongs to the same register of language as hogwash and ditties. The more formal let sets the writer on a higher plane.
For many modern speakers, the only familiar use of let as a noun occurs in the phrase “without let or hindrance,” as in Article 22 of the Actors’ Equity Association rule book (2011-2015):
It is agreed that deputies may be designated by Equity without let or hindrance.
The phrase is a fossilized doublet (two words that mean the same thing) common in legal writing, as in these examples:
Her Britannic Majesty’s Secretary of State requests and requires in the name of Her Majesty all those whom it may concern to allow the bearer to pass freely without let or hindrance and to afford the bearer such assistance and protection as may be necessary.—British passport.
Henceforth the Vendor shall not have any right, title or interest in the Scheduled Apartment which shall be enjoyed absolutely by the Buyer without any let or hindrance from the Vendor or anyone claiming through them.—Generic sale form available by download.
Miller was not alone among twentieth-century writers who used let in the sense of hindrance:
They beat us to surrender weak with fright,
And tugging and tearing without let or pause.—“Birds of Prey.” Claude McKay.
Now that he knew himself to be self he was free to grok ever closer to his brothers, merge without let. —Stranger in a Strange Land. Robert A. Heinlein.
Note: Heinlein coined the word grok. In this context it means, “to empathize or communicate sympathetically with.” The word is used by modern computer programmers with the meaning “to understand deeply”:
Some people think design means how it looks. But of course, if you dig deeper, it’s really how it works. The design of the Mac wasn’t what it looked like, although that was part of it. Primarily, it was how it worked. To design something really well, you have to get it. You have to really grok what it’s all about.—Steve Jobs, Wired interview, 1996.
Spelling advisory: The word hindrance is frequently misspelled as “hinderance, “hindrence,” and “hinderence.” The verb is hinder. The noun is hindrance.