Visit A&E Television's online store.

   Issue 154, page 2

Search Home FAQ Links Site map Book Store

BackIssues

New Ask Us Theory About
AG00003_.gif (10348 bytes)

Words to the Wise

Your Etymological Queries Answered

From Jan D. Hodge:

Can you trace the origin (and meaning) of hell bent for leather? What if any variations of it are generally in use?

Hell bent for leather seems to be a very recent usage in which two phrases: hell-bent and hell for leather have been run together.  The bent in hell-bent means "determined" or "resolute", as in "bent on revenge", so hell-bent means "intent on going to hell".

Hell for leather, on the other hand, means "fast".  It occurs twice (1889, 1893) in Kipling's stories of the British Army in India.  In both cases it refers to horse-riding and leather probably refers to the saddle.  It may have originated as Army slang or it could possibly have been one of Kipling's inventions.

For the meaning, we can only suggest that you ask the next person who uses it in conversation with you.  It is understood to mean "as fast as possible", having retained the meaning of hell for leather with the extraneous bent.

From Julio Comello:

Who was Pyrrhus, and what were the details behind his Pyrrhic victory?

First, we should explain to readers who are not as erudite as Julio (you know who you are) that a Pyrrhic victory is "a victory won at immense cost".  Pyrrhus was a king of Epirus who defeated the Roman army at the Battle of Asculum in Apulia in 279 B.C.  He lost all his best officers and many of his men and is recorded to have said "One more such victory and we are lost".

When spelled with a small p, pyrrhic refers to the war-dance of the ancient Greeks: the pyrriche or pyrrhic dance which was performed in armor.  The dancers imitated the actions of battle to the sound of a reed-pipe.  The dance is named after its inventor, Pyrriche the Dorian, so there is no connection to the Pyrrhic of Pyrrhic victory.  A relic of the pyrriche survives to this day and is called the Romaika.

From Elliot:

The ancient Greek word philandros pertained to men who loved other men, right? Now a philanderer is "a man who has affairs or is flirtatious with many women" but originally it was a "gay lover". Otherwise, it would be philogyne or something that means "lover of women". Right? 

Well, not exactly.  You are quite right to say that philandros meant "man-loving" but  there is nothing in the word to suggest that it applies to a man who loves other men.  Of course, a "man-loving" man would be homosexual but philandros  was applied to both women and men.  In particular, it was used to describe a wife who was especially devoted to her husband.

During the renaissance, some writers misconstrued philandros  as meaning not "man-loving" but "lover-man" and characters with the name Philander (or Filandro) show up as generic "lovers" in various works.  Thus, in Beaumont and Fletcher’s play The Laws of Candy, we find Prince Philander of Cyprus who loves the appropriately named Erota and in Ariosto’s Orlando Furioso (1516), Gabrina first lusts after and then ruins the noble Filandro.  

None of this accounts for why philanderer means "a man who has affairs with many women".  For that we must turn to a minor, and spectacularly unmemorable, genre of love ballads which featured the lovers Philander and Phillis as their principal characters.  One of these, from around 1682, was entitled The faithful Lovers Downfal: or, The Death of Fair Phillis Who Killed her self for loss of her Philander.  Here is a sample:

Philander, ah Philander! still the bleeding Phillis cries, 
She wept awhile, And she forc’t a Smile, 
then clos’d her eyes and dyes.

[Oh, that bleeding Phillis! - M&M] 

This execrable poem seems to be single-handedly responsible for the modern sense of philanderer.  In fact, you could probably blame it on the title alone.

From Kelly:

My question is about rathskellar.  Many college campuses, including mine, have restaurants (often the only one that serves alcohol) that go by this name. I have asked others, searched dictionaries, etc, but I can't seem to find the meaning or origin of this term.

You might have had more luck if you'd spelled it rathskeller.  Its origin is German and it is formed from Rathaus (Rat or Rath, "council" + Haus, "house") which means "town hall", and Keller "cellar".

The original rathskellers were cellars in the town hall, and wine and beer were often sold there, sometimes along with food.  Restaurants that were patterned after this model (and were usually below street level) were known by the same name.  The older form rathskeller was preferred over ratskeller to avoid an association with rodents.  The word dates from the  mid-19th century in English.

PREVIOUS  |  NEXT

Comments, additions? 
Send to Melanie & Mike: melmike@takeourword.com 
DO NOT SEND QUERIES TO THAT ADDRESS.  Instead, ASK US.  
Copyright © 1995-
2002 TIERE  
Last Updated 05/02/02 10:08 PM