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October 2009 Issue

Semper Ubi Sub Ubi


Well, summer has at long last loosened its sweaty grip upon the simple folk here in Flyover, Ohio, home of TWD’s Go Figure Farm and Deranged Animal Preserve.  Good riddance.  Soon it will be time to decorate the Christmas tree in our front yard, which was bought at a nursery in Connecticut about 15 years ago, lived on our terrace on the Upper West side of Manhattan for a few years, and then followed us to Ohio and found itself planted smack dab in front of the front porch in what has since become apparent was an epic failure to observe even the most obvious tenets of feng shui.  Oops.  Too late to move it.  Among other things, I discovered a few months ago that there’s a very large snake living under that tree.  Moi doesn’t mind snakes, but moi has no intention of even thinking about trying to catch one that big.

Here be serpents.

Here be serpents.

Fifty words into this and already I’m connecting snakes and Christmas. Must say something nice.

Hey, lookie there! This month’s batch of columns are illustrated with the odd little pictures that I had to drop when I stopped hand-coding this circus as static web pages and switched to WordPress.  Part of this artistic resurgence is due to the wider center column of our new theme, but  part is due to my belated realization that I no longer have to take the extra six steps necessary to make each illustration transparent, because the background of the page is now white, not the weird beige of the site of yore.  No more creating an alpha channel, selecting by color, deleting by color, realizing you’ve deleted the whole image, starting over….

Ancient FM is cool.  I do miss the Middle Ages, don’t you?   But they seem to be coming back, don’t they?

Memo to  Nook (Barnes & Noble’s new e-reader) is a much better name than your “Kindle,” which has always, it seems to me, implied that the gizmo is (a) flimsy, and (b) likely to burst into flames.  “Nook,” however, evokes a cozy place to read.  Just sayin’.

This brings back memories.  I think I still have some out in the garage.

Continue reading this post » » »

Hell bent for leather

Hell is for horsies.

Dear Word Detective: “Hell bent for leather.” Now there’s got to be a story there! And it just happens to be one of my favorite expressions. — Tabitha, Bath, UK.


Man making his hand talk like a duck, circa 1912.

Leather? Well, whatever floats your boat. Personally, I could see going “hell bent for pizza” or “hell bent for doughnuts.” Speaking of doughnuts, I have an outrage to report, albeit a bit belatedly. When I lived in New York City, the stores sold blue and white boxes of Dutch Mill All-Natural Doughnuts. They were wonderful (picture that word in italics and bold-face). But, sometime around 2001, an evil competitor bought Dutch Mill and put them out of business. That’s bad, but the worst part is that if you ask for Dutch Mill doughnuts in a NYC deli today, nobody remembers them. Incredible. It’s like forgetting Casablanca, Gone with the Wind, or the first Tremors movie. It’s an outrage.

Oh well, back to work. There are three elements to “hell bent for leather,” an American invention that first appeared in print at the end of the 19th century meaning “at breakneck speed; recklessly determined.” “Hell,” of course, is the Bad Place, considered throughout human history to be located in either the Underworld or Paramus, New Jersey. “Hell” has also long been used as an intensifier, lending force to a proclamation, question or insult (e.g., “What the hell are you doing?” doesn’t really have anything to do with Hell.)

“Bent,” an adjective formed from the verb “to bend,” is here used in the sense of “directed on a course” with implications of “determined, resolute.” Put together, “hell bent” (sometimes spelled as one word, “hellbent”) has, since the early 18th century, meant “recklessly determined to do something at any cost; doggedly determined.” It’s a bit unclear whether the original sense was “willing (and possibly likely) to go to hell to achieve one’s goal” or just “really, really determined,” but the bottom line is that it’s best not to interfere with someone “hell bent” on anything (“I know your kind — hell-bent to spend what you cash in,” 1910).

The truly odd thing about “hell bent for leather” is that it appears to be a combination of two other phrases: “hell bent” and “hell for leather,” which also dates to the late 19th century. “Hell for leather” specifically referred to riding a horse very fast, the “leather” in question being either the saddle or, more likely, the leather crop used to “incentivize” the poor horse. Rudyard Kipling seemed especially fond of the phrase (“Here, Gaddy, take the note to Bingle and ride hell-for-leather,” Story of the Gadsbys, 1889), and probably contributed to its popularity. “Hell bent for leather” doesn’t make any more literal sense than “hell for leather” did, but the fact that “hell bent” is more widely understood undoubtedly led to the fusion of the two phrases.

Bones / Sawbones

Hold still

Dear Word Detective: I’m interested in the origin of “bones” referring to a doctor. I see the reference to dice, but where did the term “bones” referring to a doctor come from? — Dr. Dave.

That’s a good question. The timing of your query is also interesting, because the most well-known modern use of “bones” in this sense was probably in the old “Star Trek” TV series and subsequent movies, where the character of Dr. Leonard McCoy went by the nickname “Bones.” As it happens (and I’m still not sure how it happened, something to do with Mothers Day), I recently went to see the latest product of the Star Trek movie franchise. Cleverly titled “Star Trek” (huh?), it’s a “prequel” to the TV series, with the twist that all the familiar characters are played by suburban teenagers. Like “Bugsy Malone” with phasers. On the bright side, you do get to hear a character ask, with a perfectly straight face, the classic Seinfeldian question, “Are you from the future?” Oh dear, if the poor thing actually had a plot, I’d probably have just spoiled it.


Good heavens, man. You've swallowed the premise!

It’s true that “bones” has been used a slang for “dice” since at least the 14th century (“Thou won’st my money too, with a pair of base bones,” 1624) because dice were originally made from the bones of animals (including ivory and whalebone). “Bones” has also long been used to mean pieces of bone (again presumably from some non-human animal) rattled as accompaniment to other musical instruments (“Wilt thou heare some musicke… Let us have the tongs and the bones,” Shakespeare, A Midsummer Night’s Dream).

“Bones” referring to a doctor apparently originated in the US military in the 19th century, where it was often used as a nickname or form of direct address for a surgeon (“Bones, our surgeon — Dr. Sawin outside the service — broke into the room,” 1893). This “bones” is actually a shortened form of the somewhat older slang term “sawbones,” again usually applied specifically to a surgeon, which was in use in Great Britain at least by the early 19th century and possibly much earlier (“‘What, don’t you know what a Sawbones is, Sir’, enquired Mr. Weller; ‘I thought every body know’d as a Sawbones was a Surgeon,'” Charles Dickens, Pickwick Papers, 1837).

“Bones” and “sawbones” as slang for a surgeon come, of course, from the surgical technique of actually sawing through bones in the human body for various purposes, today often to reach otherwise inaccessible regions of the body in order to fix them. In Dickens’ day, however, sawing bones was almost always done for purposes of amputating an arm or leg. While surgeons no doubt performed less draconian procedures every day, it was the lopping off of large bits of the anatomy that understandably caught the public’s eye, thus giving us “sawbones” as a common slang term for the profession.