hell-bent for leather

The meaning of this odd phrase is to travel fast and hard in a seemingly purposeless direction. The metaphor behind the phrase is obscure. Don’t confuse this phrase with hell for leather, which is a different phrase entirely—although the use of leather may come from confusion between the two. Variants of the phrase include hell-bent for election, breakfast, or Georgia.

Hell-bent, meaning recklessly determined or willing to achieve something at any cost, dates to the early 18th century. From Ebenezer Cooke’s The Maryland Muse of 1731:

Ab-origines in Arms...did then resort, In Haste to Susquehanna Fort, Hell bent on Thoughts of Massacree.1

There is this from the 23 September 1863 New York Times that serves as a transition from the word hell-bent to the full phrase (and which makes the election connection, as well):

But the glorious news from California had just been echoed back from Maine—[applause]—that Maine, he had so much heard of in his youth, and which, as the song ran—
“——Went, went, went,
       Hell bent,
       For Governor Kent.’
that he had no fear of the result.2

The full phrase first appears in 1899 in Stephen Crane’s short story Twelve O’Clock:

One puncher racin’ his cow-pony hell-bent-fer-election down Main Street.3

The phrase hell for leather appears a few years earlier in Kipling’s 1889 The Story of Gadsby:

Here, Gaddy, take the note to Bingle and ride hell-for-leather.

Kipling again uses the phrase in his 1893 Many Inventions:

I perceived a gunner-orf’cer in full rig’mentals perusin’ down the road, hell-for-leather, wid his mouth open.4

1Historical Dictionary of American Slang, hell-bent, adj. and adv., 3rd Edition, June 2008, Oxford University Press, accessed 6 Feb 2009 <http://dictionary.oed.com/cgi/entry/50104473>.

2”The Political Campaign,” New York Times (New York), 23 Sep 1863, 5.

3OED3, hell-bent, adj. and adv.

4OED3, hell, n. and int., Dec 2008, accessed 6 Feb 2009 <http://dictionary.oed.com/cgi/entry/50104462>.

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