Q From Mick Potter: I recently read a book set in England in the 1930s (Crime at Guildford by Freeman Wills Crofts, first published 1935). One of the characters uses the words, ‘It’s probably a case of nothing like leather’. This is a phrase I’ve never come across before. From the context it appears to refer to an action that someone performs because he does so every day, and so it becomes his reaction to any set of circumstances. Can you help with its meaning and its origin?
A You’re in good company, Mr Potter, since I’d never encountered nothing like leather before you mentioned it. It turns out to have been a common proverbial saying of the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, both in North America and in Britain, but one which is now hardly known.
There is a traditional story that is said to be the origin of the saying, which is recorded in Daniel Fenning’s The Universal Spelling Book of 1767 (a book which became a standard primer, with at least thirty editions in the following hundred years, so giving the story very wide circulation). It was said that, once upon a time, a town was in danger of attack. A council of the chief inhabitants was called together to decide how best to repel it. A mason on the council suggested that a strong stone wall would be good, while a shipbuilder advised walls of wood. After much discussion a currier rose to his feet and said that in his opinion “there was nothing like leather”.
The phrase is a jokingly dismissive way of summarising the point of the story, which comments on the tendency of people of rigid mind to fit the solution to a problem to what they knew best how to do, no matter what the circumstances were — very much as you describe it. (A more modern parallel is the saying that “when your only tool is a hammer, everything starts to look like a nail”.) An edition of Roget’s Thesaurus of 1911 gives these alternatives to nothing like leather: “unshakeable conviction; ‘my mind is made up — don’t bother me with the facts’ ”.