Q: I saw the phrase “hell bent for leather” used in a recent New York Times article. The explanations/definitions I could find for this expression seemed less than satisfying. Care to give it a go?
A: The Oxford English Dictionary describes “hell-bent for leather” as a North American colloquial phrase meaning “at breakneck speed; rapidly; recklessly; (also occas.) fast; reckless; zealous, determined.”
The dictionary also cites two related expressions with similar meanings: “hell-bent for election” and “hell-bent for breakfast.”
The first published reference in the OED for any of these phrases comes from “Twelve O’Clock,” an 1899 short story by Stephen Crane: “One puncher racin’ his cow-pony hell-bent-fer-election down Main Street.”
The first citation for the leathery version is from a 1926 article in the Lincoln (Nebraska) Star: “Bold, reckless dare devils driving hell bent for leather.”
As you can see, the first citation had to do with riding a horse fast or recklessly. A somewhat earlier British expression, “hell-for-leather,” had a similar meaning.
Here’s an example from Kipling’s The Story of the Gadsby (1891): “Here, Gaddy, take the note to Bingle and ride hell-for-leather.”
Although the OED doesn’t explain the use of the word “leather” here, I imagine it originally referred to the leather saddles on horses ridden at breakneck speed.
In the New York Times article you mentioned, a doctor used the phrase “hell bent for leather” to describe the early detection of breast tumors that would have gone away on their own.
The term “hell-bent,” which dates from the early 1700s, means determined “to achieve something at all costs; passionately or recklessly intent,” according to the OED.
The earliest quotations in the dictionary were references to American Indians “Hell bent on Thoughts of Massacree” (1731) and “hell-bent on carnage” (1835).
Here’s a more recent (and more politically correct) example from a May 2002 article in Scotland on Sunday: “Listen to Kissin tearing hell-bent through the impossibly fast leaps of Schumann’s Paganini portrait.”