Without let or hindrance
I thought my passport was due for renewal in the next year or so and with some foreign expeditions in mind, I dug it out. Other than to bemoan the verisimilitude of my portrait I have never really paid the document much attention but my eye was caught by the rather impressive italicised statement on the inside front cover, to wit, “Her Britannic Majesty’s Principal Secretary of State for Foreign and Commonwealth Affairs Requests and requires in the Name of Her Majesty all those whom it may concern to allow the bearer to pass freely without let or hindrance, and to afford the bearer such assistance and protection as may be necessary.” I am sure we are all reassured by this demand, the modern-day equivalent of civis Romanus sum.
The phrase that particularly caught my attention was without let or hindrance which means without obstruction, save a wait of a couple of hours to get through border controls. Hindrance, as a noun, dates back to the 15th century and is a modernisation of the Middle English word, hinderaunce. It is a compound of the word hinder and the suffix –ance which is used to form nouns from adjectives or verbs. Its sense has not changed in six centuries.
What is more interesting is the noun, let. Nowadays, when we use the word let, it is normally as a verb and means to allow. It has had this sense since the 10th century but clearly the noun in our phrase cannot have this meaning as it would contradict hindrance and make nonsense of Her Britannic Majesty’s demand – something we surely cannot allow to happen.
It turns out that from the 9th century let had another meaning, total opposite to that which we associate the word with today. In other words, it meant to hinder or obstruct and in our phrase is used to strengthen and reiterate the demand for untrammelled passage. Around the 12th century it began to appear in noun form and obstacles were known as lets. To this day it survives in this sense in our phrase and in the terminology associated with the game of lawn tennis. In the rules of the game a let is where some obstruction has occurred, such as the ball clipping the net from a serve or some encroachment onto the playing surface, necessitation that the point be played again.
So having got that sorted out, the next thing to exercise our mind is when let and hinder were first conjoined. John Baret’s useful and, presumably, enormous Aluearie or triple dictionarie in Englishe, Latin and French: very profitable for all such as be desirous of any of those three languages, published in 1574 mentions the phrase let or hinder so it must have been in use at least in the 16th century.
The legal profession then seem to have got hold of it and used it specifically to describe the actions of those who obstruct representatives going about their lawful duty. Samuel Freeman had a long career as clerk to the state courts of Massachusetts and in 1799 distilled his long experience into a manual called the Town Officer, which included inter alia oaths, instructions, descriptions of the powers and duties of officials and a table of crimes and punishments. There we find “persons who wilfully let or hinder any sheriff or constable.”
Satisfied, I shall put my passport away until I next pack my suitcase.