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Whitleather, tough as

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.”


He wasn’t there again today; I wish to hell he’d go away.

Dear Word Detective:  My mother sometimes used the word “chibbles” to refer to small bits of debris such as those that resulted from kids playing with scissors.  The debris that search engines have turned up suggest that this is a (relatively rare) regional usage (more often applied to cut-up food) but I still wonder.  Is there any relation to “kibble” (little bits of dry animal food)? — James

Funny you should ask.  I was just on my way out to buy dog and cat food.  I must remember to keep them straight this time.  A few months ago I somehow managed to put the dog kibble in the cat food bin and vice-versa.  The dogs were thrilled with the cat chow, but the cats were much less so with their new fare.  Obviously, somebody needs to invent a universal pet food, something that cats, dogs, fish, hamsters, parakeets and those weasel things (oh right, sorry, ferrets) will eat.  Bonus points if it’s palatable to humans as well.  My life would be far easier.

I’ve spent the past day or so looking into your question, and I have a suggestion:  pick a different question.  I’m no stranger to dead ends (I grew up on a dead-end street, in fact), but it seems that literally everywhere I go in search of “chibble” I hit an unsatisfying answer.  What I’ve been looking for, of course, is any use of “chibble” to mean “small pieces” or “bits of debris left over.”  Long story short, no dice, at least no such uses printed in a book or newspaper (rather than just being reported in an online forum or the like).

What I have found, however, is the use of “chibble” to mean “small onions” or “scallions,” a usage that dates back at least to the late 19th century here in the US.  The forms most often found in the US are “chibbol” or “chibal,” both of which are variations on an old English dialect word, “chibol,” meaning a kind of leek (a sort of cross between an onion and a proper leek).  This “chibol” dates back to the mid-14th century in English, and was apparently derived from the French “ciboule,” which itself was based on “cepa,” the Latin word for “onion.”  So what we have here is a word which sounds like your mother’s “chibble,” but means “small onions.”

Meanwhile, peeking under the hood of “kibble” isn’t much help.  As a noun meaning “coarsely ground grain or cereal,” it’s a fairly recent word, first appearing in the early 20th century.  Meaning “pellets of pet or animal food,” it’s even newer, dating back only to 1965.  These noun forms came from the verb “to kibble,” which appeared around 1790 meaning “to grind coarsely, to crush into small pieces.”  Unfortunately, no one knows where “kibble” came from or what its roots might possibly be.  Anybody see a pattern here?

My guess is that your mother’s use of “chibble” was, perhaps, a form of “chibbol” (small onion) expanded to mean “bits of food,” then “food debris,” and then further extended to mean “bits of any kind of debris.”  It is entirely possible that this mutation in meaning was partly driven by the similarity in sound of “chibbol” to “kibble,” but the words don’t seem to be actually related.  The fact that such a use isn’t documented in print doesn’t, of course, mean that your mother invented it or that she was the only person to use it.  Such uses often arise and exist under the radar of lexicographers for years, and may even fade away again without ever being noted.  Judging by the absence of this usage in print, I’d say this one is definitely on its way out.



Dear Word Detective:  I love community theater and am lucky enough to have been cast in several musical productions.  We are currently presenting “The Sound of Music” and are intrigued by the word “flibbertigibbet” which we, as the nuns, use to describe Maria.  I am imagining it comes from the flitting to and fro of butterflies or birds.  But I am asking for your help with its origin. — Marsha.

The hills are alive … run!  You know, every so often I realize that I’ve never actually seen “The Sound of Music,” just the same few movie clips over and over on the TV.  (We call it “the TV” out here in the boonies.)   But that doesn’t seem to prevent that darn song from running through my head.

I haven’t heard anyone actually use the term “flibbertigibbet” aloud in years, and even Google News comes up with only an anemic twenty-six hits for print use lately.  I did, however,  have the word on my mind a some months ago after seeing the film “Julie & Julia,” a painfully tedious chronicle of one blogger’s attempt to leverage unearned fame and fortune on the life and reputation of the late Julia Child, author of “Mastering the Art of French Cooking.”  I would characterize “Julie & Julia” as essentially a very boring vampire movie.  Anyway, Meryl Streep, adding insult to injury in my view, chose to portray Child as a whooping flibbertigibbet, which the American Heritage Dictionary defines as “a silly, scatterbrained, or garrulous person,” and which Child was definitely not.

Onward.  “Flibbertigibbet” is an interesting, and more than slightly mysterious, word.  As far as anyone has been able to determine so far, it first appeared in print in 1549, with essentially the same “blithering fool” meaning it has today.  Though “flibbertigibbet” is, strictly speaking, a gender-neutral word, in practice it is, and long has been, usually applied to women.

Although that basic sense of “flibbertigibbet” has been in constant use since the mid-16th century, there have been two interesting exceptions.  In King Lear (1605), Shakespeare used “Flibbertigibbet” as the name of a demon (“The foule Flibbertigibbet … hurts the poore Creature of earth”), apparently drawing the name from a list of such creatures published several years earlier.  Two centuries later, Sir Walter Scott, in his novel Kenilworth (1821), used “Flibbertigibbet” as the nickname of an impish, impetuous child.  Until “King Lear,” incidentally, “flibbertigibbet” had been spelled in a wide variety of ways (including “flybbergybe” and “flebergebet”) but Shakespeare’s version became the standard spelling (apart from occasional excursions such as “Flibber de’ Jibb” later in the 17th century).

The source of “flibbertigibbet” was, as far as anyone has been able to tell, our old friend onomatopoeia, the “echoic” formation of a word in imitation of a sound or other characteristic of a thing.  “Flibbertigibbet” almost certainly arose as an attempt to duplicate the sound of someone babbling or prattling on in meaningless chatter.

The air-brained motormouths among us have given us more than just “flibbertigibbet,” of course.  The words “babble,” “prattle” and “chatter” all also originated as onomatopoeic attempts to replicate the sound of someone who has nothing to say but simply will not shut up.