It’s time we had a frank discussion about hell. You know … down there, the hot place, Hades. Anyone who’s ever sat through a Baptist sermon knows that if you don’t get right, you’re gonna get left (thank you to my friend Phil Proctor for giving me that saying many years ago).
I have to say that the fear of eternal damnation kept me out of a mighty lot of mischief as a child. All that preachin’ and sweatin’ and pulpit poundin’. The fire. The brimstone. The demons. The agony. The screaming. The wailing. Probably lots of incense. I can’t stand incense.
That’s probably why, when a Southerner wants to convey just how bad something is, was, or can be, they turn to the Underworld for a proper description. I mean, does it get any worse than H-E-double-hockey-sticks? And if you can’t even bear to say the word, you can always substitute “heck” but the impact is lost. Here are some idioms invoking the eternal inferno:
Come hell or high water. No matter how bad things get, you will persevere. Determination. Resilience. Irrepressible cussedness. All factors that come together and let you know that neither the Devil or Mother Nature can keep a Southerner down. “Come hell or high water, Beulah was going to catch that bouquet. Too bad she pushed that poor flower girl in the lake trying to get at it.”
Hell-bent or hell-bent for leather or hell for leather. Take a dash of the aforementioned determination, a spoon of Southern hard-headedness, and shot of recklessness and you have the recipe for them that are described thusly. Some say that the “leather” here refers to either a saddle or a whip and riding a horse too far too fast.
One can also be “whiskey bent and hell bound” thanks to your friend and mine, Bocephus (that’s Hank Williams, Jr. if you don’t know). Take a little minute to sing along to this country music anthem here and then keep on reading, You know you know all the words and don’t try to tell me you don’t.
Hell and gone. This is one of Husband’s favorites. It usually means very, very far away and sometimes it means very, very far away and fairly remote. For example, if you want to go to the Foxfire Museum, it’s hell and gone up in Rabun County, Georgia. You can’t get there from here.
Going to hell in a handbasket. Y’all … I always thought this was a cute, alliterative way to say something or someone was on a bad path. You know, pairing a bad thing like hell with a not-so-bad-maybe-even-cute thing like a crafty little basket. Upon further research, I’ve found quite the opposite. The cute basket to which one refers in casual conversation could actually have originated from the woven vessel used to catch the recently severed heads of those executed by guillotine. GUILLOTINE! Naturally someone who met that terrible fate would have been a criminal who had committed heinous crimes and would therefore be destined for the hot place. There you have it.
There will be hell to pay. There’s big trouble coming if you hear this one! “If Betty Lou sees that lipstick on your collar, shoooooweeee … there’s gonna be hell to pay!”
Give hell. To give somebody grief, scold them, or tease them mercilessly. “My wife gave me so much hell for wearing my Bama shirt to Pawpaw’s funeral, but I know he was hollering ‘Roll Tide’ down from Heaven.”
Drive like hell. Fast and reckless. Reckless and fast. We all have that friend. You can also run like hell, dance like hell, talk like hell, and so on.
Somebody who drives like hell can also be referred to as hell on wheels.
Hell on. To be hard on something. “Them young ‘uns are hell on shoes! I have to buy each one a new pair every couple of months!”
Helluva. “Hell of a …” all smashed together. “Just give him some swine flesh and fire and let him go to town. He’s a helluva good cook.” (For the record, I don’t mean he will literally go to the nearest town. It’s figurative, y’all.)
Hellfire and damnation! Use this one when you’re mad and want everyone to know it. It’s just a standalone expression much like “dammit.”
To hell with it! This is a way to dismiss or reject something. “I’ll never get my hair to stay curled in this dad-blamed humidity. To hell with it! I’ll just put it in a ponytail.”
For the hell of it! For no real reason. “Earl, why’d you light that dead cow on fire?” “I dunno, Butchie. Just for the hell of it.” By the way, I based that quote off of a true story a nurse friend told me. She worked in the burn unit, and she had a patient come in with fairly severe burns over most of his body. It seems that one of his cows had died, and after a few days, he thought he should dispose of the carcass by burning it up. He did not, however, account for the buildup of methane gas in the creature and kablaammm! Before he knew what happened, he was covered in molten cow goo.
The hell I will! No I won’t!
Like hell he will! No he won’t either!
What the hell? We have a two-fold meaning here. Either you don’t care or you’re expressing some sort of shock, anger, or incredulity. “She put corn in the gumbo! What the hell?”
Now I know this last one can be offensive so don’t send me a bunch of messages, but I’m going to leave it in here if it harelips hell. (See what I did there?) This is about the same as “come hell or high water.” It means no matter what. You might also see “hell” replaced with “the Devil,” “the Pope,” “the Queen,” or “the Governor.”
And finally, there are all the ones about being hot, which you can find over here along with some other ones about the heat. It’s been so hot so far this fall, I know y’all are using these up. (Note that some are a little racy.)
And there you have it, a helluva list of hell sayings!