Home » Episodes » Hell for Leather (episode #1453)

Hell for Leather

Play episode

Victorian slang and a modern controversy over language and gender. In the early 1900’s, a door-knocker wasn’t just what visitors used to announce their arrival, it was a type of beard with a similar shape. And in the 21st century: Is it ever okay to call someone a lady? Or is woman always the better term? Plus, surprising stories behind some familiar car brands. Chances are you’ve been stopped in traffic behind a car named for an ancient Persian deity — or passed by an automobile that takes its name from a bilingual pun involving German and Latin.

This episode first aired October 8, 2016. It was rebroadcast the weekends of May 15, 2017, and November 5, 2018.

Victorian English

 The 1909 volume Passing English of the Victorian Era by J. Redding Ware has a wealth of slang terms from that era. One entry even includes musical notation for please mother open the door, a slang phrase that was sung, rather than spoken, to express admiration for a woman.

Why “Toast”?

 A 13-year-old from San Diego, California, wonders: Why do we call that breakfast staple toast instead of, say, toasted bread? It’s natural to find shortcuts for such terms; we’ve also shortened pickled cucumbers to just pickles.

Every Head is a World

 A wise Spanish proverb, cada cabeza es un mundo, translates as “every head is a world,” meaning we each have our own perspective.

Hell for Leather

 A caller from Long Beach, California, says hell for leather describes “a reckless abandonment of everything but the pursuit of speed.” But why hell for leather? The expression seems to have originated in the mid-19th century, referencing the wear and tear on the leather from a rough ride on horseback at breakneck speed. But similar early versions include hell falleero and hell faladery. There’s also hell for election, which can mean the same thing and appears to be a variation of hell-bent for election.


 Amazingly few discotheques provide jukeboxes. The job requires extra pluck and zeal from every young wage-earner. Both of those sentences are pangrams, meaning they use every letter of the alphabet. Our Facebook group has been discussing these and lots of other alternatives to the old typing-teacher classic, “The quick brown fox jumped over the lazy, sleeping dog.”

Movie Word Game

 Quiz Guy John Chaneski has designed a puzzle inspired by the movie Finding Dory, only this time it’s about two language experts who journey around the ocean looking for le mot juste. For example, what sea creature name literally means “daughter of the wind”?

Lady vs. Woman

 When is it appropriate to refer to someone as a lady? Is woman a better word to use? Is it ever appropriate to refer to adult females as girls? It all depends on context — who’s doing the talking and who’s doing the listening.

Compliment Challenge

 As Mark Twain observed, “The compliment that helps us on our way is not the one that is shut up in the mind, but the one that is spoken out.” Martha describes a compliment challenge her friends are taking up on Facebook, with happy results.

Vowel Mergers

 A Dallas, Texas, caller says his girlfriend from a rural part of his state has an unusual way of pronouncing certain words. Email sounds like EE-mill, toenail like TOW-nell, and tell-tale like TELL-tell. These sounds are the result of a well-known feature of language change known as a vowel merger.

A Short Riddle

 Riddle time! I exist only when there’s light, but direct light kills me. What am I?

Origin of Automobile Manufacturer Names

 The stories behind the brand names of automobiles is sometimes surprising. The name of the Audi derives from a bilingual pun involving a German word, and Mazda honors the central deity of Zoroastrianism, with which the car company’s founder had a fascination.

Honky, Hunky, and Hunyak

 A high-school teacher in Fort Worth, Texas, wonders about the origin of the term honky. This word is widely considered impolite, and likely derives from various versions of the term hunky or hunyak used to disparage immigrants from Eastern Europe.

Food Names Meaning “Cut”

 Lots of foods are named for what happens to them. Mozzarella comes from an Italian word that means “cut,” feta cheese takes its name from a Greek word meaning the same thing, and schnitzel derives from a German word that also means “to cut.”

Sangwich, Sammitch, and Samwidge

 Why do some people pronounce the word sandwich as SANG-wich or SAM-mitch or SAM-widge?

Door-Knocker Beard

 In the 19th century, the slang term door-knocker referred to a beard-and-mustache combo that ringed the mouth in the shape of a metal ring used to tap on a door.

The Pet Name “Booby”

 A Canadian-born caller says her mother, who is from Britain, addresses her grandson as booby. In The Lore and Language of Schoolchildren, researchers Iona and Peter Opie write that booby is a children’s term for “a foolish crybaby,” which may be connected.

Introduce Shoemaker to Tailor

 The 1909 slang collection Passing English of the Victorian Era defines the phrase to introduce shoemaker to tailor this way: “Evasive metaphor for fundamental kicking.” In other words, to introduce shoemaker to tailor means to give someone a swift kick in the pants.

This episode is hosted by Martha Barnette and Grant Barrett, and produced by Stefanie Levine.

Photo by Roger Ward. Used under a Creative Commons license.


Books Mentioned in the Episode

Dictionary of American Regional English
The Lore and Language of Schoolchildren
Passing English of the Victorian Era: A Dictionary of Heterodox English, Slang and Phrase

Music Used in the Episode

The MoveJungle By NightThe HuntKindred Spirits
TasmaticaJungle By NightThe HuntKindred Spirits
JaktenJungle By NightThe HuntKindred Spirits
The Old SpotClutchy Hopkins Meets Lord KenjaminMusic Is My MedicineUbiquity
PiranhaJungle By NightThe HuntKindred Spirits
WeaponJungle By NightThe HuntKindred Spirits
AttilaJungle By NightThe HuntKindred Spirits
Riff Raff RollinClutchy Hopkins Meets Lord KenjaminMusic Is My MedicineUbiquity
CherokeeJungle By NightThe HuntKindred Spirits
VampM-TetVamp 45rpmFunk Night Records
HannomanJungle By NightThe HuntKindred Spirits
Volcano VapesSure Fire Soul EnsembleOut On The CoastColemine Records

Leave a comment

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.

More from this show

Episode 1543

Goody Two-Shoes

She sells seashells by the seashore. Who is the she in this tongue twister? Some claim it’s the young Mary Anning, who went on to become a famous 19th-century British paleontologist. Dubious perhaps, but the story of her rise from seaside...

Episode 1638

Pinking Shears

When you’re distracted by trying to get the perfect photo at a wedding or fiddling with your camera during a solar eclipse, you’re missing out on some of the experience itself. There’s a term for this: It’s called...

Recent posts

EpisodesEpisode 1453