Jewish World Review Dec. 2, 2003 / 7 Kislev, 5764
Editors of Merriam-Webster's Collegiate
"Karats'' and "carats'' meaning of and difference between; why apostrophe in "'cello''?; "hell-bent for leather''
Jewelers always seem to advertise jewelry in terms of "karats'' and "carats.'' What do these terms mean and what is the difference between them? C.V., Jackson, Mich.
The word "karat'' is defined in Merriam-Webster's Collegiate Dictionary, Eleventh Edition, as "a unit of fineness for gold equal to part of pure gold in an alloy.'' The word "carat'' can be used as a variant spelling for "karat,'' but more commonly it signifies a unit of weight for precious stones equal to 200 milligrams. Hence, a ring might consist of a diamond of about 3 carats set in 14 karat gold. Both words derive from the Arabic word "qirat,'' meaning "bean pod.'' At one time, bean pods were used for weighing gold, with each pod weighing four grains, and four grains equaling one carat. We no longer measure gold with beanpods, but we do place a great value on its relative fineness and we do measure gems by weight. So today's consumer is wise to know the difference between a "carat'' and a "karat.''
I was reading an historical novel in which the writer spells "cello'' with an apostrophe, as in "He was playing a 'cello.'' I don't understand why the apostrophe is there, but since it is spelled that way more than once, it doesn't appear to be a typo. Can you explain? M.S., Valparaiso, Ind.
You are right - that apostrophe is not a typo. It derives from the fact that the word "cello'' is a shortening of the word "violoncello.'' "Violoncello'' comes from Italian, in which it is a diminutive of "violone'' (which means "big viola''). The first evidence we have of "violoncello'' in print in English dates to the 1720s. The shortened form first began appearing in print in the 1850s. Dictionaries often showed the word spelled both with and without the apostrophe. Although the apostrophe is rarely seen today, it does still turn up on occasion.
I'm curious about the expression "hell-bent for leather.'' It seems to imply riding a horse very fast and perhaps whipping it, as in a horse race. Can you supply any information as to the origin and/or the meaning of this? T.S., St. Louis, Mo.
The interesting thing about this expression is that there are three versions, all used variously to mean "with reckless speed,'' "all-out,'' or simply "reckless'' or "daring.''
The oddest of the three versions - and the least-frequently seen these days - is "hell-bent for election,'' which originally had a somewhat literal meaning. The adjective "hell-bent,'' meaning "recklessly determined,'' seems to have originated in the U.S. in the early 1800s. After the Maine elections of 1840, it found its way into the Whig victory slogan: "Oh, have you heard how old Maine went? She went hell-bent for Governor Kent ...'' Since Edward Kent was a Whig in a primarily Democratic state, the combination of the slogan and of his party's having been of necessity "hell-bent'' for election is now believed to have established the phrase in American idiom. How exactly it came to denote all-out speed has yet to be explained, but the other two expressions may be connected in some way.
Around the time Maine was electing its Whig governor, British cavalry soldiers in India were riding "hell for leather.'' Actually all we know for certain is that Rudyard Kipling, who lived in India from 1882-89, used the expression in one of his stories of the time. In Kipling's context, it clearly means "at top speed.'' The assumption to be made here is that Kipling didn't coin the phrase, but that it was a cavalry term he'd heard. The "leather'' could have referred either to the saddle, the stirrups, or the whip, the implication being that hard riding at top speeds wreaked havoc on the leather (never mind the horse).
That brings us finally to "hell-bent for leather,'' the version you've heard. There's no story associated with its origin; it simply makes its first appearance in print at the beginning of the 20th century. Perhaps the British "hell for leather'' had encountered the American "hell-bent'' and spawned the new expression. Perhaps, too, "hell-bent for election,'' which was also first recorded in print with the meaning "at top speed'' in the early 1900s, played a role in the match. In any case, the connotations of no-holds-barred determination, recklessness, and speed came to be shared by all three phrases.
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