- hell (n.)
- Old English hel, helle, "nether world, abode of the dead, infernal regions," from Proto-Germanic *haljo "the underworld" (cf. Old Frisian helle, Dutch hel, Old Norse hel, German Hölle, Gothic halja "hell") "the underworld," literally "concealed place" (cf. Old Norse hellir "cave, cavern"), from PIE *kel- "to cover, conceal, save" (see cell).
The English word may be in part from Old Norse Hel (from Proto-Germanic *halija "one who covers up or hides something"), in Norse mythology the name of Loki's daughter, who rules over the evil dead in Niflheim, the lowest of all worlds (nifl "mist"). Transfer of a pagan concept and word to a Christian idiom. In Middle English, also of the Limbus Patrum, place where the Patriarchs, Prophets, etc. awaited the Atonement. Used in the KJV for Old Testament Hebrew Sheol and New Testament Greek Hades, Gehenna. Used figuratively for "state of misery, any bad experience" since at least late 14c. As an expression of disgust, etc., first recorded 1670s.
Expression Hell in a handbasket is c.1941, perhaps a revision of earlier heaven in a handbasket (c.1913), with a sense of "easy passage" to whichever destination. Hell or high water is apparently a variation of between the devil and the deep blue sea. To wish someone would go to hell is in Shakespeare ("Merchant of Venice"). Snowball's chance in hell "no chance" is from 1931; till hell freezes over "never" is from 1919. To ride hell for leather is from 1889, originally with reference to riding on horseback. Hell on wheels is said to be from 1843 in DAS; popularity dates from 1869 in reference to the temporary workers' towns along the U.S. transcontinental railroad and their vices.