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Þjórsá and Hekla - The Oxford Etymologist, OUPblog

A guide to going to hell (first draft) and other matters

Since December 2022, when the University of Minnesota Press published my semi-etymological dictionary of English Idioms (Take My Word for It), I have received several questions about the origin of familiar phrases and some queries about the absence of others. The second batch of questions is easy to answer. My team consisting of two faithful volunteers who stayed with me for years and two more assistants, each of whom spent a single semester, looked through all the popular journals ever published in the English-speaking world, from The British Apollo (1708) to The New Yorker (still thriving), and alerted me to the articles and notes dealing with idioms. The selection and commentary were my duty. Also, if I happened to know some relevant works in a language other than English (provided they touched on English idioms), especially often in Latin, French, German, the Scandinavian languages, and Russian (less rarely in Spanish, Polish, etc.), I might add the relevant item or two to the database.

Some of the idioms featured in the book are hopelessly obscure, and the discussion in Take My Word for It may perhaps call attention to them for the first time since they were featured in Notes and Queries, The Academy, The Gentleman’s Magazine, and the rest. Conversely, some of the most “famous” phrases never turned up in my database. A glaring gap (to cite one example) is the whole nine yards. Here I should repeat that we screened only popular journals. Subscribers constantly sent letters to them with questions about the etymology of words and idioms, received answers from other readers, refuted, or supported certain suggestions, but as time went on, the exchange would often be forgotten, with the result that fifty or so years later, somebody would ask the same question, receive the same or similar answers, and no one would remember the first round. Alas, publications on etymology are hard to find.

The British Apollo.
(Via Google Books, public domain)

This kind of exchange in the popular press lingered for a decade or so after the First World War and then petered out. Occasionally, Scientific American or Notes and Queries for Somerset and Dorset would still feature a discussion of a word or idiom, but in principle, this genre is now dead. The Internet provided a forum of which our ancestors could not even dream. Look up the whole nine yards in Wikipedia: an excellent article, supplied with an exhaustive bibliography. Nowadays, every literate person probably has a computer or/and a smartphone. Why should I have included such an entry? The greatest danger of even a semi-popular work is to be not wrong (mistakes cannot be avoided) but trivial.

While working on my dictionary, I googled for each item, to make sure that I had something of substance to add. Wikipedia features a semi-satisfactory entry on the idiom by hook or by crook, but I knew much more and included the idiom. With regard to rain cats and dogs, the Internet supplies the user with shameful nonsense (it refers to Old Norse mythology; allegedly, Odin had dogs, produced thunder, and so forth). Kick the bucket seems to have been explained rather convincingly, but the Internet fails the user. Finally, the Internet, except for a few responsible websites and Wikipedia, bears no responsibility for the information it provides, and the etymology found on it should be treated with healthy distrust. When the telephone was installed in Iceland, an old woman made herself famous by saying: “You heard it on the phone? That should be checked”—a most reasonable attitude, I would say.

Caution is invited.
(Via Pexels, public domain)

Since the exchange on word and phrase origins in the popular press more or less petered out a century ago, I have no citations for countless new idioms, especially those going back to sports, jazz, rock, pop, and the rest of popular culture. Yet if articles on the origin of some idiom appeared in scholarly periodicals like American Speech, I of course discussed them. A good example is spittin’ image. Another example is put the kibosh on. The phrase was extensively discussed in the old issues of Notes and Queries, but two years ago, a book about it was published, and I, naturally, made use of it. Finally, I may mention a hog on ice, the object of long and not fruitless discussion. The phrase graces the title of a mainly dependable book by Charles Earle Funk. Finally, I looked up my material in all the existing English dictionaries of “phrase and fable” and commented on the solutions offered there when they differed from mine.

There are slightly over a thousand entries in Take My Word for It, while English, including its regional varieties, probably has at least a hundred thousand of them. Also, I mainly ignored proverbs, which are more numerous than stars in heaven.

Finally, I did not include phrases like give up, give in, put up with, and light out (for) “to rush out (for another place).” Their history is a special branch of lexicology (very dear to my heart, because it was the first topic I discussed in a research paper as an undergraduate). The only exception in my book was made for put up (with), because it once made its way into Notes and Queries. The origin of such verb-adverb collocations is often obscure: compare do in, make up, and their likes. The usage is also partly capricious. Why do we shut up but shut down our computers? I remember my puzzlement when I read in John Galsworthy’s novel Flowering Wilderness a woman’s request to another woman: “Please do me up from behind.” The British-American joke about knock me up in the morning is too stale to bear repetition.

Choose your favorite means of transportation.
(Via Pixabay, public domain)

What follows was inspired by the question about the origin of the phrase unleash holy hell “to criticize one in a very angry way.” Holy hell (an exclamation) exists outside the longer phrase. I don’t know its origin, but I have a suggestion. Holy in holy hell is an obvious euphemism for “unholy, damned,” and it must have been chosen for the sake of alliteration, an important feature of English idioms and name giving. Even the latest of our cliches often follow this principle: publish or perish, bed and board, bed and breakfast, and so forth. I also recollect some other phrases with hell. One is to go to hell in a handbasket. The phrase seems to have been coined in America. The variant to go to heaven in a handbasket is also known. Countless people have asked word historians about the mysterious handbasket and received no answer. An alliterating joke that has no explanation? Consider also come hell or high water. The opposition (an ultimate depth versus a flood) is obvious, but so is the alliteration. Hot as hell and hell’s half-acre are not particularly memorable, but, like holy hell, they also alliterate. In the merry month of May, someone may meander less and enlighten us better. I know that my answer about hell is not convincing, but I had the best intentions in the world.

In the not too remote past, Hekla (the famous Icelandic volcano) was believed to be the place of real hell. Did it happen because Hekla sounds somewhat like hell in English, German, and the Scandinavian languages? In Sweden and Denmark, go to Heckenfel was once a famous curse. Hecklebirnie was known to be three miles beyond hell. The same usage has been recorded in Aberdeenshire. If one said: “Go you to the deil,” the reply often was: “Go you to Hecklebirnie.” Alliteration seems to be able to placate holy heaven and unleash unholy hell.

I have a curious set of notes tilted “Topographia Infernalis,” going back to 1884, and may quote parts of it next week.

Featured image by Hansueli Krapf, via Wikimedia Commons (CC BY-SA 3.0)

Recent Comments

  1. Wilson Cotton

    I always thought one went to hell in a handcart, which is more practical than a handbasket; although who is doing the pushing or carrying?

    I thoroughly enjoy your articles.

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