What the hell?

27th February 2004 at 00:00
Any catalogue of historical slang would be poorer without the inclusion of hell. From "hell's delight" (a violent disturbance, 1835) to "hell-scrapers" (a Boer War term for shrapnel), the language classed as "low" or "colloquial" by lexicographers abounds with references to the realm of the damned.

Sailors were especially fond of the word, invariably describing a violent or reckless officer as Hellfire Jack, the ship he ran as a "hell ship" and even the galley stove as a "hell hole". On shore, any kind of gambling house was simply known as a "hell" from the 16th century onwards, while a place for dancing was usually a "dancing hell". Bad liquor was "hell-broth", a hackney carriage a "hell-cart", a coachman a "hell-driver" and the old or battered type used by printers "hell-matter".

From the mid-17th century, it was commonly said of an "old maid" that she would "lead apes in hell". For real colour, return to 17th-century London, where we find three taverns situated near Westminster Hall - called Heaven, Hell and Purgatory.

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