Western Lingo – Part II

After my last post on Western Lingo, a reader wrote in with a question. She is curious to know the origin of the phrase, “Hell bent for leather.” Since I love a good challenge and I have an affinity for all things involving leather, it seems like a good time for a reprise, with Western Lingo, Part Deux!

While researching the answer to the reader’s question, one thing led to another and before I knew it, I had a whole “hell”-themed blog post. One heluva blog post! It was quite accidental, I assure you. I hope you enjoy learning the origin of some of our hellish phrases!

Hell Bent + Hell for Leather = Hell Bent for Leather

Hell bent for leather is a combination of two phrases: “hell bent” and “hell for leather”. It’s almost like a “Before and After” puzzle on “Wheel of Fortune”!

Hell bent is a term that can be traced back to the early 19th century. It is usually used to convey that a person is, to use another common Western phrase, “bound and determined” to do something.  An example sentence would be: “I warned that one armed man not to strike the match while standing next to a stick of dynamite, but he seemed hell bent on destruction!”

“Hell for leather” is a little trickier to trace. Some people believe it refers to a long walk being tough on footwear. Eh. That doesn’t sound quite right to me, although a long walk in the wrong footwear can do a number on your feet!

Another, more likely possibility is that hell for leather refers to riding a horse in a reckless manner. The phrase can be traced at least as far back as 1888, when Rudyard Kipling used it in the short story, “The Story of the Gadsbys”. Kipling wrote, “Gaddy, take this chit to Bingle, and ride hell-for-leather. It’ll do you good.”  (For the record, I looked up the word, “chit” and it isn’t vulgar. It means a short letter or a requisition.)

“Hell for leather” could be referring to using a leather whip on a horse, or it could mean pushing a horse beyond it’s physical capabilities and, thereby, ensuring that it will be turned into leather. At any rate, it seems to mean riding a horse really fast!

At some point, the phrases “hell bent” and “hell for leather” were married together in vernacular bliss! In 1960, Audie Murphy starred in a Universal Pictures movie entitled, “Hell Bent for Leather”.  In the picture, Murphy portrayed a cowboy who was being hunted by a posse for a crime he didn’t commit. Of course he didn’t! Audie Murphy wouldn’t commit a crime!

British, heavy metal band, Judas Priest recorded a song entitled, “Hell Bent for Leather” in 1979. Since that time, lead singer, Rob Halford has used the song to make his onstage entrance on a motorcycle. It’s just as well he’s on a motorcycle because all of the noise would probably spook a horse!

Breaking Bad

The phrase “breaking bad” has received a lot of attention, due to the television show by that name. People have speculated that the phrase has much more sinister roots than it actually does. After all, the television show “Breaking Bad” is about a man who begins producing and selling methamphetamine in order to provide financial security for his family.

“Breaking bad” is a phrase that has been around the Southwest for a long time. Vince Gilligan, creator of the television show “Breaking Bad,” wrongly assumed that the rest of the country would know the meaning of the phrase. As Gilligan has explained in interviews, “It basically means to raise hell.”  An example sentence is: She didn’t make it to church on Sunday morning because she had been out breaking bad on Saturday night.

Going to Hell in a Hand Basket

This is one of my favorite phrases (probably because it reminds me of purses)!  It just sounds like something you would have heard in the Old West. Going to hell in a hand basket has proven to be difficult to trace.

The phrase probably first appeared in print in 1865, in Civil War writings of Winslow Ayers: “Thousands of our best men were sent prisoners in Camp Douglas, and if once at liberty would ‘send abolitionists to hell in a hand basket.’” Camp Douglas was a Union Army prisoner of war camp for Confederate soldiers.

No one seems to know why the phrase originated. It is fun to say. Go ahead; say it. “Hell in a hand basket!” In Great Britain, the phrase “hell in a handcart” is sometimes used. Perhaps we just like the alliteration and the way the words roll off the tongue because there doesn’t seem to be anything particularly hellish about hand baskets or handcarts.

Some people theorize that the phrase refers to the baskets used to catch heads at the guillotine. Eew!!!  I prefer to believe that it’s just a colorful way to say something isn’t going as you planned.

Oh, and as for the obligatory example sentence… Try this one on for size: I started researching the origin of a phrase for a reader and, before I knew it, my entire blog post had gone to hell in a hand basket!

As you may have guessed, Western Lingo, Part III is in the works . . . and as always, we’d love to hear from you!  Let us know which Western expressions you’d like to know more about!

Happy Trails, y’all!

Anita Lequoia

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