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Talking the Talk: English Tips from the Hip

This week: Life in 'Hell'.
by Victor Greeson

I don't know if Americans are obsessed with the afterlife, but I do know that you will hear them use the word 'Hell' in a thousand ways. And that's only during your first week here! Hell, by the time you leave here, you'll hear this word a million times if you hear it once.

'Hell' is not a very polite word, but it still gets used a hell of a lot - it is not extremely rude. How rude it is depends on what part of the country you are in, what social class the people around you are, how conservative they are, how old, and many other things. 'Heck' is sometimes used as a polite but unsophisticated substitute for 'hell'. The best advice here is to listen to how the hell the people around you talk, and imitate their way of speaking. Whenever you are uncertain, be a little less vulgar than you could be, or you might catch hell for it. For now, let's try to figure out what the hell these people are talking about, so you can at least understand what the hell they are saying to you.

'Hell' is a word from the Christian religion, and it refers to a place where evil people go after death to be punished forever, possibly with fire. So, clearly, this is a word that is about bad things. Also, this is a powerful word, hinting at death, sin, and pain. So, it means a little bit more when someone says "Get the hell off my lawn!" than if they just say "Get off of my lawn, please."

Still, for such a hella grim word, 'hell' gets used very, very casually. Hell, sometimes it gets used so casually, you don't even notice it. Here are the main ways it is used:
(Note: "Hell" is capitalized when it clearly refers to the place. In all other instances it should be lower case.)

Idioms from 'Hell':

  • "Go to hell!" The meaning of this is pretty obvious. This means that the speaker is angry at the listener, and probably wants them to go away (not necessarily to Hell).
  • "Hell if I know." This is usually said in response to a question. It means that the speaker does not know the answer to the question, and probably doesn't think that they should have to know the answer.
  • "Who the hell do you think you are?" This is said to someone who is acting "high and mighty" - as if they were someone very special or powerful, and as if the people around them were not. Americans hate that, which is why this expression exists. (It expresses hostility, so be careful!)
  • Hell is traditionally depicted as a very hot, fiery place, which can never be cold. Therefore, "when Hell freezes over" means "never." So does "a cold day in Hell". For example, Barney says: "It'll be a cold day in Hell when I talk to Fred again. He says he's going to change, but I know he'll change when Hell freezes over." This means that Barney will never talk to Fred again, because Fred will never change.
  • Similarly, if something is impossible, or doomed to failure, it has a snowball's chance in Hell.
  • If someone is doing something foolish now, and you know that they will regret it later on, you might tell them: "Someday, there's going to be hell to pay." This is something to say when you are serious, or very obviously joking.
  • If you are doing something purely for fun, you are doing it "for the hell of it."
  • Someone would say "To hell with it!" (or just "hell with it!") when they are tired of something and just want to forget it. "I was going to study for that chemistry final, but to hell with it!"
  • Things were going fine, then suddenly "all hell broke loose!" This means things suddenly went very badly.
  • If everything is going badly, then things are going to hell in a handbasket.

To Express Intensity or Power:

  • Strangely, 'hell' does not have to be a negative thing! Fred might refer to Wilma as "one hell of a woman".
  • Similarly, you might have "a hell of a good time" at a nightclub.
  • The word is often used by itself, to strengthen a word or sentence. For example: "Hell, yeah!" or "Hell, I don't care!" or "Vote for you? Hell, I don't even want to look at you!"
  • I saw a comedy last night. It was funny as hell!
  • Sometimes, the (fairly new) word 'hella' (which comes from "hell of a") is used to mean "very". For example: "That's a hella cool car." Careful! - this makes you sound like an American teenager.

To Express Amazement or Confusion:

  • Two especially important cases are "in hell" and "the hell". These are used, it seems, almost everywhere, to add intensity to whatever they are attached to, and usually when the speaker is overwhelmed or confused by something.
  • For example: Wilma and Fred are walking down the street, when suddenly a man dressed like a clown runs by them, screaming "Bo-Bo-Bo-Bo-Bob!" very loudly. Wilma says: "Who the hell was that? What in hell was he doing? What the hell is going on here?!?" Fred asks "What the hell was he saying? Where the hell did he go?" Wilma responds "How the hell am I supposed to know?"

To Talk About Heat:

  • "It's hot as Hell in this place!"

To Talk About Threats, Pain, Fear, Danger, or Harm:

  • I saw a horror movie last night. It scared the hell out of me.
  • General George S. Patton is famous for saying "War is hell."
  • Matt Groening is famous for adding that "Work is hell", "School is hell", "Love is hell", and "Childhood is hell."
  • If Fred is harming or harassing Barney, we might say that "Fred is giving him hell," or that "Barney is catching hell from Fred."
    "Catching hell" is a little old-fashioned.
  • If your plans have been ruined, they might have been shot to hell, or maybe blown all to hell.
  • Things that cause suffering are hellish. Sometimes they hurt like hell.
  • Naturally, any place you don't like can be hell, or even hell on Earth.
  • Anything "from hell" is very bad, like a headache from hell, a final exam from hell, or even a car from hell.
  • Barney's roommate Fred is a hell-raiser. Fred likes to raise hell - he's always causing trouble. Barney calls Fred "the roommate from hell". That must be hell on poor Barney.

This week: Idioms and Imagery
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Spanish Roots: Why American English Is American (II)

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Native Roots: Why American English Is American (I)

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Life in 'Hell'

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