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  • Writer's pictureJim Pfiffer

Southern Tier Comedy Shop

How the hell did Hell become one hell of a word?

By Jim Pfiffer Illustrated by Filomena Jack


How did a word so short and simple become so complicated and misused? I know no other word used in so many different forms.

Hell is said to be a place beneath the Earth, where the spirits of the damned spend eternity suffering fire and agony for the sins they committed. If so, I will be going there in a handbasket, although I don’t know how I’m going to fit my sin-stuffed soul into a tiny basket. I suspect that it will be a bushel basket.

Cartoons and other illustrations depict Hell as one of two places: 1. A cave where people are surrounded by intense flames while being overseen by a horned, pointed-tail demon holding a pitchfork. 2. The department of motor vehicles.

Illustration by Filomena Jack

Apparently, there are different rooms in hell, as in “There is a special place in Hell for people like you.” If that room has HBO, I bet it only televises C-SPAN which is a hell of a way to spend eternity.

Hell is also a common destination. There’s the standard, “You go to Hell,” the travel past tense, “He went through Hell” and the round trip “To Hell and back.” (with no frequent flier miles).

Many people believe that “hell” is a swear word, so they say “heck,” “hades,“ “What the hey?” or “The devil with you.”

When I was a newspaper columnist, I received letters from readers who were hell-bent on chiding me for using the word hell. A 10-year-old boy was so opposed to the word that his letter spelled it “H-e-double hockey stick.” I don’t know if he played hockey or if his mom was reading over his shoulder while he penned the letter. Who the hell knows?

Hell is most often used to intensify other words, like “That’s a hell of a thing for a writer to make fun of a 10-year-old kid.”

The word is often misused. It makes sense to say, “It’s hot as hell today.” But it makes no sense to say, “It’s cold as hell outside,” yet we still do it. What the hell?

The word has become so common that we use it without thinking. For example, if a guy believes someone is evil, disgusting and vile he insults that person by saying “I’ll see you in hell,” which means the speaker must also be evil, disgusting and vile, as he too will be spending eternity in hell. Maybe they will be roommates.

Here are a dirty dozen common uses of the word:

1. Calculating the odds: “He has a snowball’s chance in hell.” 2. A speed measure: “Run like hell.” 3. A measure of river levels: “Hell or high water.” 4. Pain scale: “It hurt like hell.” 5. Meeting someone: “Who in the hell do you think you are?” 6. Snappy retort: “It’s your fault!” “The hell it is!” 7. Financial responsibility: “There’s going to be hell to pay.” 8. Excavating: “This place is a hell hole.” 9. Musical instruments: “Hell’s bells.”

10. Weather forecast: “When hell freezes over.” 11. Confusion: “How the hell should I know?” 12. Immaturity: “Can someone please tell me why, in the hell, Pfiffer made fun of that poor kid? Grow up!”

And finally, hell finds its way into song titles, as in AC/DC’s “Highway to Hell,” which is the underworld’s answer to Zeppelin’s “Stairway to Heaven.”

Hell of a way to end this column.


Get more Jim Pfiffer humor on his Facebook page, and his blog, FullOfWit.

To contact and learn more about Filomena Jack and to see her artwork go to


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