Words at Play

10 Words Conjuring Hell and the Devil

But also horse riding, astronomy, gardening, and more


The word hell has existed since Old English times as the name for an abode of the dead. It is related to the Old English verb helan, meaning "to hide" or "to conceal," which is of Germanic origin. Other English relatives of helan include helmet, hull, hole, hollow, and hall

Over the centuries, hell has been used in various emphatic or intensive expressions, many of which are quite common. One less frequently used expression is hell (a-)popping, which caught on as a catchphrase in American slang to describe situations unfolding in a chaotic manner.

There'll be hell a-popping whenever they do come together.
― Francis, Saddle and Moccasin, 1887

Hell musta popped here.
― John Steinbeck, The Grapes of Wrath, 1939

The phrase's heyday was in the 1930s and 1940s, which coincides with the 1938 debut of the musical Hellzapoppin' and the 1941 release of the film of the same title. The phrase is also used in closed form like the title. 

The Detroits floundered hilariously into the world championship in seven hellzapoppin' games.
The Wisconsin Rapids Daily Tribune, 1942

Hellzapoppin' might seem a tad dated, but it still has fun from time to time.

Dr. Dre and his cronies are going wild with the news that it would be a deal worth billions. Iovine wasn't there. In fact, he was outraged and embarrassed that the acquisition ... had been made public. That's part of the allure of the series—Iovine, a caustic but cautious, private man, contrasted with the hellzapoppin' world of Los Angeles hip-hop and rap.
— John Doyle, The Globe and Mail (Canada), 8 July 2017

The word hell-bent is commonly used to imply reckless or all-out speed (or simply recklessness or daring). Anyone "hell-bent" on something is recklessly determined to get it, regardless of the consequences―even eternal damnation.

Adverbial use of the word in the construction "hell-bent for" appears to have originated in the U.S. in the early 1800s. By one anecdotal account, after the state of Maine elections of 1840, it supposedly found its way into the Whig victory slogan: "Oh, have you heard how old Maine went? She went hell-bent for Governor Kent...." This word history seems reasonable; however, concrete evidence of the phrase from 1840 has not surfaced.

Another uncertainty over the expression is how exactly it came to denote all-out speed. Around the time Maine was electing its Whig governor, British cavalry soldiers in India were riding "hell for leather," a phrase used by Rudyard Kipling in a few of his stories to mean "at top speed." The assumption is that Kipling didn't coin the phrase, but having lived in India from 1882-89, it was a cavalry term he would have heard. The "leather" could refer to the saddle, the stirrups, or the whip, the implication being that hard riding at top speeds wreaked havoc on the tack (never mind the horse).  

"Hell-bent for leather" also makes an appearance in print at the beginning of the 20th century. Perhaps the older British expression "hell for leather" encountered the American hell-bent and spawned the new expression? In any case, the connotations of no-holds-barred determination, recklessness, and speed came to be shared by all three.

In Latin, lucifer means "light-bearing," which may be a strange name for the Prince of Darkness. The word is from lux, "light," and ferre, "to carry," and is also the name of the morning star that heralds the dawn, in particular the planet Venus. 

With the rise of Christianity, Lucifer came to be regarded as the name of Satan before his fall, and was used by John Milton in Paradise Lost. Biblical use of the name began with the prophet Isaiah and his account of the fall of Babylon in which he compares the king of Babylon for his former glory and his present degradation to the morning star: "How art thou fallen from Heaven, O Lucifer, son of the morning!" (Isaiah 14:12, AV). 

Later, this Old Testament passage was compared with Christ's words: "I beheld Satan as lightning fall from heaven" (Luke 10:18, AV). This led to the reading of Isaiah's description as an allegory for the fall and the interpretation that Lucifer must have been the devil's original name in his former position of respectability in heaven.

"Going to hell in a handbasket" is an informal expression that means "quickly and surely heading toward deterioration or ruin."

In short, Ludmerer argues that medical education is going to hell in a handbasket.
― Robert G. Petersdorf, Science, 23 Mar. 2001

The expression and its variants owe much of their popularity to alliteration. Though the word handbasket is now seldom used on its own, it originally referred to a portable basket small enough to be carried in one hand, thus implying ease and speed. A similar but less popular phrase is "going to hell in a handbag," which carries the same meaning.   

Evidence of "going to hell in a handbasket" goes back to at least the American Civil War, but it should be noted that informal expressions like this one often exist in speech for decades before ever being written down.

And so the game went on in this manner, a throng of children playing keep-away from a bowling ball tossed back and forth between two plump ogres. The air filled with shrieks and cheers and shouts of laughter as daring players thrilled at the sport. That is, all but the few poor souls knocked flat and captured. No laughter rose from behind bars because those in the birdcage knew what was in store. They would soon be lunch for a couple of hungry ogres.
— Richelle E. Goodrich, Secrets of a Noble Key Keeper,  2015

Yes sirree, according to fairy tales and folklore of the past, ogres ate children. The Oxford English Dictionary provides evidence of a particularly early use of ogre with a citation from an 18th-century translation of Arabian Nights, in reference to a human-eating giant: 

He perceiv'd that the Lady … was a Hogress, Wife to one of those Savage Demons call'd Hogres, who stay in remote places, and make use of a thousand wiles to surprize and devour Passengers.

The French word may have been influenced by Latin Orcus, the name of the god of the underworld, which is also believed to be the source of Middle French orque, meaning "hell," Italian orco, "demon, monster," and Spanish huerco, "devil."

The word gained popularity from its use in the late-17th century by Charles Perrault, the author of Contes de ma mère l'oye (Tales of Mother Goose). Since then, human-eating ogres have appeared in many works, including "Tom Thumb"; "Hansel and Gretel," where the witch is a type of ogre because she intends to eat the children; and "Little Red Riding Hood," where the wolf resembles an ogre. The Cyclops of myth and heroic literature who devours humans is also a form of ogre.

In modern times, an ogre is someone very frightening, cruel, or difficult to deal with.

One of the earliest things to be called "hell (up)on wheels" was a speedy steamboat.

Hell-upon-Wheels! not if that ain't the most appropriate name for that craft [i.e., a steam-boat named Heliopolis]....
Quincy (Illinois) Herald, 10 Mar. 1843

But the term's popularity dates from the 1860s in reference to the vice-ridden temporary towns set up along the U.S. transcontinental railroad. The towns were essentially encampments of tents, but they became notorious for their lawlessness after the establishment of saloons, gambling houses, and brothels. As construction of the railroad moved westward so did the jerry-built towns, which people came to refer to as "Hell on Wheels."

It's not clear how the lawlessness of these mobile towns led to the expression's use for any formidable person or thing causing fear, though a visit to Hell on Wheels would certainly inspire more dread than a ride on a steamboat. Nevertheless, "hell on wheels" isn't exactly the thing everyday people want to run up against.

His mom … calls him a superb athlete and says, "He's hell on wheels in basketball."
― Gabriella Boston, The Washington Times, 1 Feb. 2009

A hard English poem is hell on wheels for a foreigner….
― Randall Jarrell, Randall Jarrell's Letters, 1985

Blue as an adjective to describe someone in low spirits—as in "She didn't get the job and was feeling blue" or "The losing team looked blue"—goes back to the 15th century, and it more than likely developed in reference to livid skin due to reduced circulation or oxygenation of the blood. In the early-17th century, the term blue devil was conjured up as the name for a demon that casts such melancholy.

Alston, whose life hath been accounted evill, And therfore cal'de by many the blew devill, S[t]ruck with remorse of his ill gotten pelfe, Would in dispaire have made away himselfe.
The Times' Whistle, circa 1616

In time, people began applying the name of the demon to feelings of depression or melancholy, and both the blues and the blue devils have been used for over two hundred years as expressions for such emotional states.

In one of these fits, at Skelton Castle, in Yorkshire, he kept his chamber, talking of death and the east wind by synonimous terms, and could not be persuaded by his friends to mount his horse, and dissipate his blue devils by air and exercise.
— Mr. Addison, Interesting Anecdotes, 1794

A Sonnet, Written in a Fit of the Blues.
The Weekly Entertainer, 31 Jul. 1809

"The blues" as a musical style comes from the "melancholy" sense and was applied to the style of music in the early 20th century, but there is anecdotal evidence to suggest that it is even older.

In the past, an imp in your garden would have been a welcome sight. To the Anglo-Saxon gardener, the word imp referred to a young shoot of a plant, and especially one grafted―that is, attached to the stock of another plant in such a way that it grows from it. 

In the 14th century, the word shifted from plants and began referring to children or offspring. By the 16th century, the word was often used specifically for a child of the Devil or from Hell. Or, you know, for any small demon or spirit found in the company of a witch.

….the graund enemye Satan wyth hys ympes and complices beynge subdued, and the foundacion of helthe vpon earth establyshed, and conse|quentlye the frutes multiplyed & enlarged amonges vs.
— Wolfgang Capito, An Epitome of the Psalmes, 1539

It was this use that led people to apply the word to a mischievous child who behaves like a little devil.

Given that friend and fiend differ by one letter and have conflicting meanings, you might wonder if the two are related in any way. Although they developed independently from similar old Germanic words, they were once alliteratively paired opposites.

Friend entered Old English first as frēond, a derivative of an old Germanic verb represented by Old English frēon, meaning "to love," which is also related to the English word free. Like the modern friend, the Old English word referred to a person other than a lover or relative that one holds in affection or esteem.

Fiend, on the other hand, developed from the German-derived Old English fēon, meaning "to hate," and was used in the form fēond to refer to an enemy. In time, fiend came to specify an enemy of humankind or God, and then to the Devil himself. That use distanced fiend from friend, and eventually foe, also meaning "enemy," took the place of friend's counterpart.

In the 17th century, fiend was applied to people thought to be devilishly mischievous or bothersome. This led to the word's now-common senses referring to people who are devoted to something to a degree that may irk others, like "a golf fiend," and to people who use or consume something immoderately, like "a fiend for ice cream."

Considering that the word hellion begins with hell and refers to a devilish person, one might assume that it is derived straight from hell. However, the word is an American alteration—influenced by the spelling of hell―of the Scottish word hallion, the name for a worthless fellow. The Scottish word has been traced back to the late 18th century, but its exact origin remains a mystery. 

In American English, hellion can refer to any person engaged in devilish behavior but is used especially of children.




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