Opinion: Post haste and hell for leather


Commentary by Ward Degler

Someone asked me to do something the other day, and then suggested I do it “posthaste.” No way could I let that go unchallenged. What antique chapter of language history did a phrase like “post haste” come from?

Sixteenth century England, it turns out. A courier on horseback was called a post. Delivering an urgent letter back then required galloping through the dark of night and changing horses frequently to get the job done “posthaste.”

We did the same thing later in America and called it the Pony Express. I can’t imagine that any of those hard-riding mailmen ever uttered the phrase, posthaste, however. Maybe to encourage his horse to greater speed if a Comanche war party was hot on his heels.

Shakespeare liked the phrase and used it in a scene from “Richard II”: “Old John of Gaunt hath sent post haste to entreat your majesty to visit him.” In another play, Cassio says to Othello, “the Duke requires your post haste appearance.”

Synonyms for posthaste include apace, briskly, double quick, fleetly, chop-chop and hell for leather. Chop-chop comes from Canton Chinese meaning, hurry-hurry.

Canton, of course, was a major Chinese seaport and the eastern terminus of the ancient Silk Road, a mercantile travel route that brought silk and other valuable commodities from China and Japan to Europe.

“Chop-chop” itself would probably have never gained a foothold if Canton hadn’t been flooded with English sailors who found the phrase useful. “Hey,  sweetheart, bring me another gin and tonic, chop-chop!”

“Hell for leather,” on the other hand, is often confused with hell-bent for leather. The former refers to an arduous walk through rugged terrain, one that usually destroyed the man’s shoes. Hell-bent for leather refers to a cow that was so hard to handle that the wrangler considered slaughtering it and converting it into leather.

I had a head-strong dog once that made an exasperating career out of escaping our back yard and running away “hell-bent for leather.” I admit that I harbored a few dark thoughts about her future from time to time.

I haven’t heard anyone say posthaste for a long time. And hardly anybody goes hell for leather nowadays. Come to think of it, I don’t remember the last time I heard anyone say chop-chop.

Except when ordering a gin and tonic, of course.


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