Tanned, tough and mysterious.
Dear Word Detective: I’ve heard a quaint little phrase for describing resilience nearly all my life, but have no idea if ever such a product exists. Cobblers, makers of leather articles and tack have looked askance at me when I enquired of the item in question. From whence did this arise: “as tough as whit leather”? Thank you for any assistance you may offer, or even for an incredulous look. — Mark.
Don’t worry — I don’t do incredulous looks. I learned years ago to assume that if I’ve never heard of the word or phrase a reader is asking about, it simply means that my education is incomplete, not that the reader is loco in the coco, as my father used to put it. Of course, I do get the occasional inquiry from Planet Non Compos, but I can usually spot those from the exclamation marks and creative capitalization in the subject line.
I’d never heard of “whit leather” before your question arrived, but you seem to be in good company wondering about the phrase “tough as whit leather.” Wandering through Google, I came across a passage in Tom Wolfe’s 2001 novel “A Man in Full” in which a character is musing on the women in his life: “Serena … not even thirty yet and already tough as whit leather … How the hell had that expression floated into his head? … His daddy used to say it all the time … Never could figure out what whit leather was….” I wonder if Wolfe himself ever looked up “whit leather.” I suppose he must have, just in case it turned out to be something scandalous (which, as Robert Browning discovered, is a real danger when you use a word you don’t understand).
In this case, however, “whit leather” is entirely proper and quite interesting. It’s simply an alternate form of “white leather,” and is usually spelled as one word (“whitleather”). The form “whitleather” dates back to the mid-14th century in its literal sense, and has been used figuratively since the early 17th century.
“Whitleather,” as it turns out, is leather, often goatskin, that has been tanned and treated with alum and salt. That process not only lightens the color of the leather, but also renders it soft and pliable, yet very strong and tough, making it a popular material for straps and thongs. Whitleather also used to be known as “alum leather” and “Hungarian leather,” and a tanner who made whitleather was known as a “whittawer,” the archaic verb “to taw” meaning (what else?) “to prepare leather by steeping in alum and salt.” I’m not a big leather buff (I’ve been wearing the same belt for nearly 20 years, in fact), but I’ll bet there’s an easier way to make white leather today.
The phrase “tough as whitleather” in a figurative sense meaning “tough, hardened, resilient,” often applied to a person, has been popular since the 17th century (“A widow o forty-five, As has sludged like a horse all her life, Till ‘er’s tough as whit-leather..,” D.H. Lawrence, 1913). But “whitleather” has also been used, figuratively, in comparisons of softness and even paleness (“Her eyes grew preternaturally pale, and her lips wan as whit-leather,” 1839).
Interestingly, another use of the word “whitleather” since the 18th century has been as a synonym for the “paxwax,” the tough, thick ligament connecting the skull of a large quadruped (horse, ox, etc.) to its spine, thus supporting its head. This use of “whitleather” is probably derived from the ligament’s similarity to strong thongs made of “whitleather.”