Nine circles of hell

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 hallhull, 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 ParadisoMilton’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:

Hieronymus Bosch, “The Garden of Earthly Delights,” inner right wing. Image courtesy of Wikimedia Commons.

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-darkhell-hauntedhell-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?
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 hellThat 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 hellHell-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.

47 thoughts on “Nine circles of hell

  1. Ross Collins June 12, 2015 / 9:16 am

    I’m not sure anyone here in the UK would still use the old “long scale” form of numbers. I remember as a kid that there was still some argument over whether a billion was a THOUSAND million or a MILLION million, but I think we’ve settled on the “American” version now. Not true of continental Europe, mind, if Wikipedia is to be believed!

    Liked by 5 people

  2. Russell June 12, 2015 / 11:16 am

    Of course, no discussion of “hell” is complete without this Charlton Heston quote from “Planet of the Apes.”

    Liked by 6 people

  3. neminem June 12, 2015 / 12:20 pm

    I grew up in Santa Cruz, CA, which was sort of, but not *quite* “Bay Area”, so my upbringing regarding the word “hella” was sort of odd. Santa Cruzians like to insist that they are so too part of the Bay Area… but they like to insist, or at least, did when I grew up there, that the word “hella” was only used by kids from San Jose. So, while I never inserted it into, like, every word, like some people I ran into (we used, like, like, like normal people ;)), I still found myself saying it every once in a while. I will admit, it *is* pretty versatile.

    That said, my main point in this comment is that, while your first usage example sounds entirely correct to my ears, “I hella drank some water” sounds pretty awkward. I could definitely say that I “drank hella water” (intensifying the amount of water so drunk), but not that I “hella drank water” (intensifying… the act of drinking water? What does that mean? Just that I’m not lying about drinking it? I guess I could say that if someone was like, you didn’t drink that water, did you? And then I was like “I *hella* drank that water. But it’s still a little of a stretch. Then again, I suppose I’m not totally a “hella” native.)

    Liked by 3 people

    • John Kelly June 13, 2015 / 4:16 pm

      At first, I too found “I hella drank” to be “I *hella drank,” but I started poking around Twitter and quickly saw many such adverbial usages. One stand out was: “I hella fell asleep at my computer lat night.” I suppose we should never underestimate the power of “hella”! Thanks for your comment.

      Liked by 1 person

  4. Dan Hen June 12, 2015 / 6:16 pm

    Reblogged this on itkindofgotawayfromyou and commented:
    This about takes care of this topic , I think . For you lingologists and swearingians ……… The rest of you out there maybe should leave for now . Enjoy !

    Liked by 3 people

    • John Kelly June 13, 2015 / 4:19 pm

      One hell of a map, indeed. Nothing is so hellish as “Devil’s Tea Table” in Ohio.

      Liked by 1 person

  5. reocochran June 14, 2015 / 10:21 pm

    I thoroughly enjoyed this dynamic and entertaining post. I love word plays, defining words and figuring out meanings. Sometimes, time does change how we “hear” or “accept” a word.
    In my opinion, damn and hell have lost their “power” or for me just don’t offend as much as some words. You will find me following you mainly due to how this post really had content along with a twist of fun inserted into it. This took you quite some time to write.
    Not that you will wish to do so, but my posts on the meaning of the words, patience, regret, or ways to play with forms of “frame” were ones that may interest you 🙂

    Liked by 5 people

  6. Joan June 16, 2015 / 6:20 pm

    I grew up thinking “Hell’s bells” referred to racy women (“Hell’s belles”), because I often heard it followed by “… and Hades’ ladies.”

    Liked by 4 people

  7. Chips Mackinolty June 17, 2015 / 7:25 pm

    Then there was “Hell no, we won’t go!” from draft resisters in the 1960s.

    Liked by 4 people

  8. iwillnotliveinvain June 25, 2015 / 11:52 am

    Interesting (to me) that in English the religious based swear words don’t hold as much weight (I tend to prefer the phrase “Damn it!” (all to hell? 😉 ) But in Sweden it’s the religious based swear words that are the heavy ones. At least for the older generations. More shocking to say “Helvete” or reference the devil than “Fuck”… linguistics are fascinating (and personally I love studying Nordic linguistics)

    Liked by 1 person

    • Ingeborg S. Nordén July 23, 2020 / 2:22 am

      Exactly…a Swede speaking his native language will snarl Dra åt helvete, din jävel! (literally ‘go to hell, you devil’) as forcefully as Americans say “fuck off, you son of a bitch!” And herrejävlar literally invokes God and demons at the same time; I’ve seen American films subtitled in Swedish, using Herrejävlar! when the English-speaking actor had said “Jesus H. Christ!” or “Holy shit!”

      Liked by 1 person

  9. stevensteelauthor June 25, 2015 / 7:57 pm

    Hell-diddly-ding-dong-crap! That ‘saying’ never gets old hahaha!

    By the way, what a well-written, extensively-researched piece you’ve written here! Great job, and I particularly liked the part where Google added ‘hella-‘ to their conversion system. Imma go check it out right now!! XD

    Liked by 1 person

  10. Jason Preater June 25, 2015 / 8:19 pm

    I like to go to hell in a handbasket!

    Liked by 1 person

  11. hiro812 June 26, 2015 / 9:03 am

    I still found myself saying it every once in a while. I will admit, it *is* pretty versatile

    Liked by 1 person

  12. Abisdlaw June 26, 2015 / 9:28 am

    Reblogged this on Abisdlaw and commented:
    It’s a hell ride reading the whole story but it surely catches my literary fancy.

    Liked by 1 person

  13. katmphotography June 26, 2015 / 10:22 am

    Dante would be proud of this… if he were alive today. LOL

    A lovely insight into the etymology of such terms. Fascinating to read and really well-written. Thanks for sharing this… 🙂

    Liked by 1 person

  14. Marneymae June 26, 2015 / 12:08 pm

    Just shared with a number of friends
    “Funny as hell”
    “fucking brilliant”
    Bow of appreciation

    Liked by 1 person

  15. Mark June 28, 2015 / 12:49 am

    The hell you say!

    Don’t forget Lee Marvin’s Hell is in Hello! (Wandering Star):

    Liked by 2 people

  16. zenosyneconfessions June 28, 2015 / 9:14 pm

    Methinks ‘Helling Fuck’ Is most definitely going to be my new catch phrase ha thank you for this fantastic read, I consider myself fully educated and intend to use this to its full potential, much to the boggled minds of my nearest an dearests! 😉

    Liked by 3 people

  17. freerangescience June 29, 2015 / 3:45 am

    As someone who harbors a passionate love of cursing…I find this to be 100% awesome.


  18. hsquarmby June 29, 2015 / 7:42 am

    Just found inspiration for my next English lesson, thanks!


  19. NicoLite Великий June 29, 2015 / 5:48 pm

    Hella enjoyed this post… you know, hell can also be a type of beer (in Germany, Austria and Switzerland, where it actually means “of light color”)


  20. thelifemoon July 3, 2015 / 7:04 pm

    I love you…

    That came out creepier than when I was thinking it and just loving your post.


  21. Matthew Wright July 5, 2015 / 5:43 am

    All of these words are socially mediated and their meanings change through time, typically generationally or a little slower. In the nineteenth century one of the worst words for ‘proper’ society, certainly in Britain, was ‘damn’, often presented as d-d, a euphemism that soon became a swear term of its own ‘I say, Carstars, dashed awful news old boy.’ These days that sounds terribly hokey and ‘period’, but it underscores the way such things change. The other swear words are no different in terms of the received social meanings and the way these change over enough time. It’s a fascinating field.


  22. Jclifforddreger July 5, 2015 / 8:24 pm

    Very interesting article and blog in general. My compliments on all the research that obviously went into it mate.


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s