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shameless pleading






Among the Equine-Americans.

Dear Word Detective:  I have always wondered about the strange phrase “Giddyup!” that we yell at horses to get them moving. I thought perhaps it was a contraction of “get ye up” but that seems a bit formal to yell at a horse anyway. Any thoughts? — Jason Olivier.

A few. Yelling at horses is probably not a good idea. In fact, yelling at any animal you plan to continue sitting on is not advisable. A little encouragement, sure. The Lone Ranger’s “Hi Ho Silver, away!” seems about right, combining a collaborative approach with an acknowledgment of Silver’s individuality and personal integrity. In general, I try not to use any forms of address with an animal that I wouldn’t use with a New York City cab driver, and I’m here to tell you that those guys don’t respond well to “Giddyup!” Add to that the fact that even the nicest horse is, in reality, a half-ton killing machine, and I usually stick to “Please, Sir, may we cross the meadow?” (Just kidding, of course. Horsies are nice, especially the ones who can read.)

I’m sure many horses would appreciate a formal “please get ye up,” but “ye” is not part of “giddyup.” The original form of the word was “giddap” when it first appeared in print in the late 19th century. “Giddap,” along with the popular variants “giddyup” and “giddyap,” was a US invention, and it’s actually nothing more than a colloquial pronunciation of “get up.” The command is probably actually a good deal older than that first print appearance would indicate, since colloquial terms, like slang and underworld cant, were often in oral use long before anyone thought to immortalize them in print.

It may seem strange to tell a horse to “get up” when it’s almost certainly already standing and may even be trotting briskly along, but this use of “get up” to mean “Go!” or “Go ahead!” dates back to the 1800s (“Get up! … he says … and once more the horses resume their gait,” 1887) and is essentially the equivalent of the saying “Get up and get going!”, meaning to start moving more rapidly (“A voice bellowed from the rear… ‘Git up and git, boys!’ That was the order for the charge,” 1903).

Now that we have Old Dobbin moving (“Dobbin” being a diminutive form of “Robin” or “Robert,” at one time a stereotypical name for a work horse), I’m reminded of another horse-related term that might be best described as an over-application of “giddyup.”

The phrase “hell-bent for leather” (or “for election” or “for breakfast”) is an American invention that first appeared in print at the end of the 19th century meaning “at breakneck speed; recklessly determined” (“One puncher racin’ his cow-pony hell-bent-fer-election down Main Street,” Stephen Crane, 1899). It has since been used to mean “relentlessly determined” (“The prosecutor said he doesn’t know of any alleged victims from his country. If one comes forward, he said, ‘I would be hell bent for leather’ to prosecute,” 2002).

This phrase, which became a staple of “Western” literature and films in the 20th century, apparently arose as a combination of “hell-bent,” which first appeared in print in the early 18th century meaning “recklessly determined” and “hell for leather,” a late 19th century phrase which specifically meant riding a horse very fast.

“Hell-bent” seems to suggest that the person will pursue their objectives even up to the gates of Hell.  In practical terms, however, it simply employs “hell” as an emphatic intensifier (the person is extremely “bent,” i.e., determined).

The “leather” in “hell for leather” probably referred to either the saddle or the crop with which a rider might “encourage” a horse to speed up. Put the two phrases together and you have “hell-bent for leather,” which makes slightly less sense than its constituent phrases. But the fact that “election” or “breakfast” were often substituted for “leather” in the phrase tends to indicate that the logic of the expression was not as important as the thrill of the chase.

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