For all of its eternal damnation, hell can seem pretty weak when it comes to strong language. Fuck and bitch, say, can rain down some serious fire and brimstone, but hell? Religious-based swears may not bring the same heat they once did in English, but hell still hath a lot of fury if we look at the many ways it bedevils our tongue. From hell yes! to hell-to-the-no, let’s take a tour of some of the linguistic uses—er, circles—of hell.
What swear word can claim it’s a person, place, and a thing? Hell yeah, hell can.
In Norse mythology, Hel is Loki’s daughter and goddess of the underworld, which is one way to raise Hel, I suppose. Her name is indeed a cognate of English’s own hell, whose Old English source, hell, comes from the Proto-Germanic *haljo (“the underworld,” literally “the concealed place”). Descending further into the origins of hell, some etymologists believe *haljo hails from the Proto-Indo-European *kel-, “to conceal” or “to cover.” English sees this same root in the very unhellish hall, hull, and cell, as well as that very conceal, to name a few hellions.
(Etymologically, hell may be “concealed,” but culturally it is complicated, from the shadowy Greek Hades to trash-smoldering Gehenna to the Zoroastrian freezing hell. I find an old episode of BBC’s In Our Time on the religious, mythic, historic, and cultural hell to be an enjoyable and edifying digest of this most fascinating construct.)
Not all hells are so concealed. Some are right on the map, like Hell, Michigan or Hell, California.
But of course, we have a special place for hell as a metaphor in English, referring not just to the abode of the dead or damned, but, more broadly, to a state of turmoil and torment, misery and mayhem, wretched and wickedness, and pain and punishment.
Well, not all hells are quite so infernal. Gambling dens and debtor jails have been called hells. Tailors once cast cutoffs into a tailor’s hell while printers discarded broken type into hell boxes. Hell is a possessive noun, too, claiming bells, kitchens, and angels.
In terms of linguistic versatility, hell and fuck really duke it out. Hell gives us what the hell? Fuck ups it with what the fuck? But can you burn in fuck? Does some mythic Fuck mete out eternal judgement? Yet we wouldn’t scream hell you!, would we?
When it comes to this grammatical category, fuck may just well beat the hell out of hell. Yet, hell can indeed behave as a verb, if uncommonly. It can be transitive. To hell means “to place in hell,” “to make into a hell,” or “to cause hell,” as in the students helled the classroom during first period. More often, the verbal hell is intransitive, as in to hell around, e.g., The students were helling around in the hallway after recess. As any substitute teacher (and Sartre) will tell you, hell truly is other people.
We may not exclaim helling fuck!, but we do shout fucking hell! If you are speaking British English, you might shout bloody hell! If you are Ned Flanders, you might issue a choice hell-diddly-ding-dong-crap! As an interjection, hell certainly isn’t as fiery as it may have been in centuries past, but it sure as hell is useful. Hell, I might even say it’s essential to certain kinds of speech acts.
As the preceding instance of hell illustrates, this subtler hell can have a what-the-hell attitude. It can express exasperation or frustration, particularly with a kind of mild resignation: Hell, give me the Roku and I’ll figure out how to set the damned thing up. It can communicate an I’m-just-throwing-it-out-there sense of possibility: We could set up this Roku, or hell, we could just give the neighbor’s kid $20 to do it. It can also signal a mistake (Oh, hell! I plugged the wrong cable into the Roku! ) or surprise (What the hell, so you just threw the Roku away?) We’ll revisit what the hell in a later circle.
Some locations are simply cursed, like that charming corner building that just can’t keep a restaurant. With its lake of fire and torture until the end of time, hell, too, is a ‘cursed’ property.
Hell figures in many imprecations: Rot in hell! Burn in hell! I’ll see you in hell! Go to hell! The Oxford English Dictionary (OED) gives the first citation of the latter to a line from Portia in William Shakespeare’s The Merchant of Venice: “Let Fortune goe to hell for it, not I” (3.2.21). This is implied in another hell-ish curse: the hell with or to hell with (something).
We might toil for heaven on this mortal coil, but hell is just so much more interesting. In the Western cultural imagination at least, damnation seems more compelling more than salvation. Dante’s Inferno tops his Paradiso. Milton’s Paradise Regained is mere epilogue to his Paradise Lost, which gave us the incredible Satan and his wicked wisdom: “The mind is its own place, and in itself / Can make a Heav’n of Hell, a Hell of Heav’n” (1.254-255). From literary lines to sulfurous phrases, hell indeed blesses English with many a proverb, idiom, and other expression.
The road to hell is paved with good intentions. Hell hath no fury like a scorned woman. We can have hell to pay. Teachers have all had that class from hell. Traffic on the 405 during rush hour is hell on earth, where that mustang is a veritable hell on wheels.
We give hell. We catch hell. We go to/through hell and back. Something can go or be sent to hell in a handbasket or handcart. Something can have the living hell beaten out of it. Interestingly, the OED attributes many of these expressions to mid-19th-century North American sources around the time of the Civil War, when General Sherman is credited with saying, “War is hell.”
Some hell’s are indefatigable: I’ll get that Roku to work, come hell or high water. By hell, you will! Other hell’s are simply impossible: Not a snowball’s chance in hell, like a cold day in hell, or when hell freezes over.
Hieronymus Bosch gave us some of the most vivid depictions of hell, with blazing hellfire and demons like hellhounds tearing at the writhing souls of the damned:
But the word hell is itself featured in many colorful compounds. Something wretched can be hell-begotten or hell-bound. A wretched place can be a hell-hole. A hell-raiser of a drunk may be hellbent on a hell-bender. The OED documents well over 50 hell compounds, including some rather poetic instances like hell-dark, hell-haunted, hell-mouthed, and hell-purple.
Hell‘s linguistic fire can really be an intensifier, behaving like an especially forceful modifier, as seen in the phrases the hell or in the hell, as anyone who has ever assembled IKEA furniture knows well:
Who the hell writes these instructions?
How in the hell do they expect you to turn this little fucking wrench?
Tell me, why the hell do we buy shit from this place again?
Where the hell does this peg go?
What the hell–excuse me, what the fuck–is a KALLAX anyways?
And they say war is hell. Indeed, assembling IKEA furniture can be hard as hell, exemplifying another intensive usage of hell, because it can be one hell of a task. This phrase, which goes more colloquially by helluva, is quite often used as a positive modifier, as is the case for as hell: That bookshelf is fucking useful as hell in the living room: We got a cubby just for the Roku and everything.
Former U.S. President George W. Bush infamously used helluva‘s euphemistic counterpart, heckuva, in characterizing then head of the Federal Emergency Management Agency Michael Brown’s performance during the Hurricane Katrina disaster: “Brownie, you’re doing a heckuva of job.” (The White House officially recorded the phrase as “heck of a,” though his folksy pronunciation led many other journalists to transcribe it as heckuva.)
Heckuva, of course, is a rendering of heck of a, a euphemism for hell of a. Hell may be a mild taboo word, but it’s spicy enough for many to cut it with heck. Schoolchildren may try to escape getting hell not only by uttering heck, but also by saying H-E-double-hockey-sticks. Some students might enter 7734 on their calculator displays and just claim they’re doing some arithmetic. Like hell. Others might joke: “What do you get when you cross an elephant and rhinoceros?” Hell if I know.
Spelling is ultimately featured in one particular slang usage of hell: Hell-to-the-no, popularized, apparently, by the late Whitney Houston on the TV show Being Bobby Brown. The to-the adds rhythm and emphasis, observed in hip-hop lyrics (cf. “Rapper’s Delight”) and is possibly derived from preachers’ use of spelling out words for oratorical effect. This particular hell-to-the-no riffs on hell no/naw! and its counterpart hell yes/yeah!, other instances of hell‘s intensive, interjectional, and connotative powers. When he was wrestling, “Stone Cold” Steve Austin upped the categorical ante and made hell yeah its own substantive with his catchphrase: “Can I get a hell yeah?!”
Another slang iteration appears to infix an “s”: hells yeah, sometimes written as hellz yeah online. The OED does offer, though, a genitive hell‘s that was used intensively at least as early as the 1960s, e.g., Those fifth-graders were hell’s noisy. Heck appears in oh hecky naw, sometimes oh hexy naw. Interesting enough, the earliest citations the OED provides for heck is as hecky.
Northern Californians, particularly in the Bay Area, claim hella, a remarkably useful intensifier reduced from hell of a or hell of a lot of and documented since the 1970s. It can function like “really,” “very,” and “a lot of.” It was hella hot outside today and I hella drank some water. Some youngsters might substitute hecka.
Hella? Hellz? Many people are tempted to think such modern slang means the English language is going all to hell. Not so fast–and certainly not in a handbasket. The OED attests hellacious all the way back in 1847 (probably influenced by the even earlier bodacious). As the OED also notes, the title of the 1941 film adapted from the 1938 musical Hellzapoppin’ helped promote this term for “chaotic” or “action-packed,” formed on the colorful hell is (a-)popping.
When it comes to hell, religion and science have more in common than we may like to think. Back in 2010, a University of California, Davis Chemical Physics major led a petition–a movement, as he called it–to get the scientific community to adopt hella– as the official SI prefix (like mega- or nano-) for 1027, or one octillion. Google and Wolfram Alpha gave the playful petition their nod by recognizing it in their conversion engines. So, 666 hellgrams is 2.34924587 × 1028 ounces.
One octillion is 1,000,000,000,000,000,000,000,000,000. (Add 21 more in the UK!) That’s hella zeroes, no doubt, and seemingly as numerous as all the hell‘s we yell in English.