It’s all too common these days. After a flight, a long meeting, a night’s rest, or any other blissful reprieve, we check the headlines. “Okay, I’ve been colouring my hair all morning and haven’t looked at the news once. Deep breath,” as one tweeter steeled herself. “What fresh hell have I missed?” What fresh hell indeed: While hell is a very mild taboo by Strong Language standards, the phrase is still the perfect expression for the experience of all the news, in its unrelenting cascade of controversies and outrages, in the Trump era.
What fresh hell, of course, enjoys general, humorous use as a Cassandrian overreaction to questionable but ultimately inconsequential developments. Swedish Fish-flavored Oreos? “What fresh hell is this?” we howl. But in recent months, the phrase – boosted, perhaps, as Charles P. Pierce’s mad-as-hell mantra in his Esquire column – has become a popular political refrain on social media.
Sometimes it’s issued in response to particular, and yes, partisan, Beltway bulletins: “What. The. Fresh. Hell. They’ve introduced a bill to TERMINATE THE EPA” or “Every day I wake up & say ‘what fresh hell awaits us today?’1) AG of US lied 2)Evil rich men made move to deny you clean water #ImpeachTrump.” Other times, it voices our Weltschmerz: “Omg what fresh hell is this? I can’t even go away to eat dinner without another piece of sky falling.”
There are so many fresh hells that one Facebook account, called What Fresh Hell Is This?/Fresh Hell Daily, helps keep track of them for us. Many, as we saw, even start their day with the exasperation: “Alright, Twitter. What fresh hell awaits me this morning?” And Twitter user @hugovk, inspired by Strong Language’s Nancy Friedman, created a bot called @wtfhbot, which has been tweeting out “What Fresh Hell?” once a day, every day, since November 26, 2016.
What Fresh Hell?
— What Fresh Hell? (@wfhbot) November 26, 2016
Anymore, we measure our lives not with coffee spoons but with fresh hells: “My day: 2/3 work; 1/3 frantically refreshing twitter, WaPo, and NYT to see what fresh hell has rolled forth now.” As one tweeter summed the phenomenon up: “‘What fresh hell is this?’ is literally what I mutter every time I look at my phone these days.”
The expression what fresh hell is effective on a number of levels. First we have its imagery. The metaphorical hell encapsulates the fear, anxiety, and dismay many are feeling since Trump assumed office, all with a hint of sweary zest. Fresh, meanwhile, captures the onslaught of stories and scandals swirling around the White House – and our smartphones. Fresh also evokes the computing sense of refresh, fitting for our obsessive tab-hopping and feed-updating today. And together, fresh hell presents breaking news as the fire and brimstone of this-just-in’s, as biblical plagues of tweetstorms and emergency podcasts, constantly raining down on our digital, and mental, bandwidths.
Then there’s what fresh hell’s playful versatility. What fresh hell is primed for the idioms of our day: viral memes, GIFs, and hashtags, often telescoped to #freshhell. And this truncation points to the phrase’s flexibility. It readily overlaps with the similar-sounding sweary intensifiers the hell and in the hell, as in How in the fresh hell?, Why in the fresh hell?, or Who in the fresh hell? Plus, the construction packs a mighty rhetorical punch. What fresh hell at once trumpets a question and exclamation, doubling our fist-shaking sense of outcry. And so thundering has the chorus, and experience, of what fresh hell been online that the expression has become a force, an object, an entity, a noun all its own: the fresh hell. As author, and notorious tweeter, Joyce Carol Oates weighed in:
Good feature of living in CA is that by the time one approaches Twitter in the morning the fresh hell has been pretty much assimilated.
— Joyce Carol Oates (@JoyceCarolOates) February 15, 2017
The fresh hell: It descends on us like the Nazgul, the Fog, or the Demogorgon each time we reload Politico.
“It’s like the phrase ‘fresh hell’ was invented just for this political moment,” podcaster Molly Knefel tweeted. But, of course, it wasn’t. When not misattributed to Shakespeare, what fresh hell is commonly credited to another great writer: Dorothy Parker. In his 1987 biography You May As Well Live: The Life and Times of Dorothy Parker, John Keats relates an anecdote:
When it came time to leave the apartment to get a taxi, you could see this look of resolution come on her face…Her chin would go up and her shoulders would go back; she would almost be fighting back fear and tears, as if to say to the world, ‘Do your worst; I’ll make it home all right.’ If the doorbell rang in her apartment, she would say, ‘What fresh hell can this be?’ – and it wasn’t funny; she meant it.
Quote researcher Garson O’Toole, it’s worth noting, has since found evidence for the phrase from legendary columnist Oscar McIntyre as early as 1928, when Parker was quite active, suggesting the expression was then in vernacular vogue. And it may well have been influenced by an earlier construction, what fresh horror, which peppered the literature from the 1860s through the early 1900s. (Strong Language’s Stan Carey, for one, has dubbed his phone the “fresh horrors device.”)
Parker may not have coined What fresh hell is this? She may not have even intended it facetiously. But its association with her is a glorious one. For an utterance of umbrage at the nonstop shitshow of the news, who better to look to than Dorothy Parker? She was a keen social critic and early feminist. She weaponized her caustic wit. “It’s not the tragedies that kill us; it’s the messes,” she famously remarked, a prescient observation for our over-newsed present. And when she wasn’t whisking off brilliant poems, stories, and screenplays? She was fighting against fascism and crusading for civil rights. What fresh hell, in its own small, sweary, phrasal way, helps carry the mantle of Parker’s sardonicism and activism.
It’s the humor of what fresh hell, in the end, that gives the phrase its greatest timely power. Under President Trump, we’re finding that the comedians, more so than the fact-checkers, are speaking truth to power. (As are some of the most colorful swearers, as we saw with shitgibbon and shit sandwich.) Multiple-sourced investigative reports trigger Trump’s tweets of FAKE NEWS!, but the mockery of Alec Baldwin and Melissa McCarthy on Saturday Night Live are really getting under his skin. In news cycle after news cycle of Trump’s precedent-smashing tenure, satire, and perhaps to some extent swearing, is speaking truth to power, but it is also providing sorely needed escape and release from the maelstrom of the headlines.
In this vein, what fresh hell – while so aptly registering the shock and chaos of the news, with just a scintilla of sweary spice – ultimately helps us cope from a wry distance. And this prevents the fresh hell from going stale.