a. often Hell The place of eternal punishment for the wicked after death, often imagined as being presided over by Satan and his devils.
b. A state of separation from God; exclusion from God's presence.
2. The abode of the dead in any of various religious traditions, such as the Hebrew Sheol or the Greek Hades; the underworld.
a. A situation or place of evil, misery, discord, or destruction: "War is hell" (William Tecumseh Sherman).
b. An extremely difficult experience; torment or anguish: went through hell on the job.
a. The spirits in hell or the powers of evil: All hell could not stop him.
b. Informal One that causes trouble, agony, or annoyance: The boss is hell when a job is poorly done.
5. A sharp scolding: gave the student hell for cheating.
a. A tailor's receptacle for discarded material.
b. Printing A hellbox.
a. An outstanding or noteworthy example: You are one hell of a good cook.
b. Used as an intensive: How the hell should I know?
c. Used for intensive effect in idioms such as beat the hell out of (someone) for beat (someone) very badly.
8. Archaic A gambling house.
intr.v. helled, hell·ing, hells
To behave riotously; carouse: out all night helling around.
Used to express anger, disgust, or impatience.
for the hell of it
For no particular reason; on a whim: walked home by the old school for the hell of it.
hell on Informal
1. Damaging or destructive to: Driving in a hilly town is hell on the brakes.
2. Unpleasant to or painful for.
hell or/and high water
Troubles or difficulties of whatever magnitude: We're staying, come hell or high water.
hell to pay
Great trouble: If we're wrong, there'll be hell to pay.
like hell Informal
1. Used as an intensive: He ran like hell to catch the bus.
2. Used to express strong contradiction or refusal: He says he's going along with us—Like hell he is!
to hell and gone
1. A long distance away: drove to hell and gone and still couldn't find a diner.
2. Far and wide: friends scattered to hell and gone.
3. Into the next world: The bomb blew the truck to hell and gone.
to hell with
Used to express contempt for or dismissal of someone or something.
[Middle English helle, from Old English; see kel-1 in the Appendix of Indo-European roots.]
Word History: When the Anglo-Saxons became Christian in early medieval times, the Old English word hel was used to translate the Latin word īnfernus, "the lower region, hell," and designate the fiery place of eternal punishment for the damned. But what did hel designate before the conversion of the Anglo-Saxons? We can discover some indication of the original pagan meaning of hel by examining its Old Norse equivalent, hel. The medieval Scandinavians and Icelanders were converted from paganism much later than the Anglo-Saxons, and they preserved a good deal of pagan poetry revealing the ancient Scandinavian vision of the afterworld. The medieval Icelandic scholar Snorri Sturluson, a Christian, also paints a vivid picture of hel for us in his accounts of Norse myth (although his description may have been influenced by his own Christian conception of hell). The Old Norse hel is the abode of oathbreakers, other evil persons, and those unlucky enough to have died of old age or sickness rather than in the glory of the battlefield. Unlike the typical Christian conception of Hell, the Old Norse hel is very cold. It contrasts sharply with Valhalla, the hall in Asgard where heroes slain in battle carouse with the gods after death. In Old Norse, Hel is also the name of the goddess or giantess who presides in hel. She is the daughter of the god Loki and sister of the enormous wolf that will attack the gods at the end of the world. One half of Hel's body is blue-black, while the other is white. The Indo-European root behind Old English hel and Old Norse hel, as well as their Germanic relatives like German Hölle, "hell," is *kel-, "to cover, conceal." In origin, hell is thus the "concealed place." The root *kel-, also gives us other words for things that cover, conceal, or contain, such as hall, hole, hollow, helmet, and even Valhalla, from Old Norse Valhöll, literally the "Hall (höll) of the Slain (Valr)."
The American Heritage® Dictionary of the English Language, Fifth Edition copyright ©2020 by Houghton Mifflin Harcourt Publishing Company. All rights reserved.
Indo-European & Semitic Roots Appendices
Thousands of entries in the dictionary include etymologies that trace their origins back to reconstructed proto-languages. You can obtain more information about these forms in our online appendices:
The Indo-European appendix covers nearly half of the Indo-European roots that have left their mark on English words. A more complete treatment of Indo-European roots and the English words derived from them is available in our Dictionary of Indo-European Roots.