I came across this article about the inability of the Republican party leadership to pass a piece of legislation further restricting abortion rights on the occasion of the annual rally in Washington on the anniversary of Roe v. Wade. When there was some dissension within their ranks, especially from women members of their caucus, they pulled the bill from the floor before the vote. As you can imagine, this abrupt change did not go down well with those who felt that they had been betrayed and one abortion foe was so furious that she complained angrily, saying, “What in the h-e-double-hockey-sticks just happened?”

I was amused that despite her strong emotions over this issue, she felt the need to use a euphemism for the word hell. Why is the use of that word so objectionable? I am not someone who routinely uses profane language but the word hell comes easily to me, maybe because in Sri Lanka, the phrase “What the hell?” to express surprise or annoyance is considered perfectly acceptable.

In the US, you will sometimes find people substituting the word ‘heck’ for hell, a word that I had never heard of before coming here. Merriam-Webster’s dictionary says that this word originated in 1887 as a ‘more polite form of hell’.

Clearly some in the US find the word hell so objectionable that they have to use euphemisms or spell it out or, like the woman above, even use euphemisms for the letters when spelling it out! I was curious as to why. After all, even the most religious people seem to use the word ‘heaven’ quite casually, as in ‘Good heavens’ or ‘Heaven help us’ or even ‘Heavens to Betsy’, a phrase whose origin would be interesting to investigate. They even say thing’s like ‘For god’s sake’, violating the commandment that says that you must not take god’s name in vain. So why the hesitancy to say hell?

I wonder if that is another sign of the fear of Satan, that somehow saying the word hell might trigger some kind of alarm in Satan’s lair and he might come to investigate to see who was talking about his home.

Anyone have any ideas, perhaps someone who grew up with this prohibition against the word?


  1. Holms says

    I think it is purely from the religious connotations of the word, the mere fact that it represents the final destination of sinners makes the word closely associated with sin and hence profane. I remember getting a lecture for swearing as a child, which confused me because I didn’t even realise ‘damn’ was considered swearing by anyone.

  2. Numenaster says

    Well, there’s always the proverb “Speak of the Devil and he appears.” We use the shortened form “Speak of the devil!” to indicate that a person who has just joined the conversation is either unwelcome (as a humorous exaggeration) or was recently the subject of the conversation. My family background is pretty much southern England, Isle of Man, and unknown parts of Germany and Ireland, and I think this saying came from the Irish/Manx side.

  3. Numenaster says

    Oh, and Hell was definitely a swear word in my family. My nieces glare at me for using Damn and even Shit.

  4. anat says

    My child’s internet sources claim that ‘heck’ is a combination of ‘hell’ and ‘fuck’ and therefore should be seen as a stronger word. I doubt it.

  5. dmcclean says

    “They even say thing’s like ‘For god’s sake’, violating the commandment that says that you must not take god’s name in vain.”

    Does it? I’ve always wondered what the hell (sorry) it means to “take” something’s name “in vain”. The NIV says “misuse” which seems only slightly less vague.

  6. says

    Maybe she was trying to use “hockey stick” as a curse in itself. They seem to have had a thing about hockey sticks after Al Gore’s “Inconvenient Truth” tour.

    And in answer to her question: your party started to realize they can’t keep on giving you everything you want anymore.

  7. HFM says

    @dmcclean: I think it’s an early form of contract law. E.g. “If you plow this field for me, I swear to God I will give you half the harvest”. Then, when it’s time to make good, you either do what you promised or face divine retribution. In a Bronze Age world without courts or lawyers, this certainly would have been a useful cultural construct.

    Now, of course, it’s a sad vestigial thing, with the primary effect of giving sanctimonious prats an easy way to feel superior to others. E.g. “Golly gee, gosh darn it to heck, I stubbed my toe! (Also, be impressed with my Godly restraint!)”

  8. StillAwake says

    I’ve actually heard christians use that hockey-sticks expression, took me a moment to figure it out. It’s hilarious.
    Damn seems to be a swearword with my inlaws, which took me forever to figure out. Oops. Where I come from, it is one of the less offensive words you resort to instead of a curse.
    I think Hell may also be frowned upon as I’ve heard “heck” shoehorned in to some really strange-sounding expressions. “Give ’em heck!” Really? Sounds kinda half-hearted to me.
    I was chatting to my mum about this and she suggested I adopt “Damn it all to Hell!” as my exclamation of choice. She’s a trouble maker, my mum.

  9. says

    Yeah, these are the people who are supposed to be leading a nation through adversity, and they get weak at the knees at the idea of saying a word like “hell” or “fuck” or “shit” or whatever. Bah, it’s just posturing for the gullible.

  10. Steve Lion says

    It’s just silliness. If you use the euphemism you’ve done the deed, I always say. I tend to cuss like a sailor and hell doesn’t even count in my book. I do sometimes wonder though, is the proper usage “what the hell?” or “what in hell?” or even “what in the hell?”? Oh shit! This sucks!
    Speaking of sucks. Do y’all remember when “suck” was the shortened form of “suck my cock” or some such and was therefore unsayable in polite company in itself. That usage seems to have all but disappeared.

  11. hyphenman says


    The commandment against using god’s name in vain is a legal reference to the prohibition against giving false testimony under oath.


  12. says

    I wonder if that is another sign of the fear of Satan, that somehow saying the word hell might trigger some kind of alarm in Satan’s lair and he might come to investigate to see who was talking about his home.

    See also the phrase, “speak of the devil” (“speak of the devil and he shall appear”) used when people see a person being talked about.

    There’s being prudent, and there’s being prudish. Checking one’s language to avoid offending others is sensible (e.g. not using profanity in front of kids or strangers), but feeble attempts to used words without actually saying them is laughably juvenile. You really have to wonder how uptight people are that they can’t even say “hell”, especially when many of those people are theists who have no compunction about using religious terms to utter threats and wish for the pain and suffering of others.

  13. sumdum says

    @#2 in the Netherlands we have a similar saying, speak of the devil and you step on his tail. Same meaning as the saying you mentioned.

  14. says

    See, “H-E-double-hocky-sticks” means “HELL”
    “H-e-double-toothpicks” means “hell”.

    At least, that’s what my fourth (or maybe fifth) grade teacher told me.

  15. weatherwax says

    One correction: God is the title, Yahweh or some variation is the name, so there’s no prohibition against saying god.
    That being said, there are denominations who prohibit saying or even spelling it, using G-d or something similar instead.

  16. Mano Singham says


    But isn’t god both a title and a name, with the title spelled with a lower case ‘g’ and the name with an upper case ‘G’? That is the only way that I can understand the English translation of the Arabic as “There is no god but God”.

  17. weatherwax says

    It’s one of those things that changes over time. In ancient Israel, Yahweh was just one of many sons of El Elyon, the Most High God. As they drifted into monotheism, they re-wrote their holy books, though it’s still buried in places. So there were many gods. Islam arose at a later time, and only recognized ‘The God of Abraham’.

    It’s similar for Christianity. Jesus seems to have been one of many dying and rising savior gods, variously called Jesus, Christus, Attis, Dionysus, and others. Jesus was originally a title bestowed after the Saviors earthly work was completed. His true name being considered too sacred to use, over time it was forgotten and Jesus became a name instead of a title.

  18. badgersdaughter says

    I’m pretty sure Weatherwax means that the title is ‘Christos’, or Greek for ‘The Anointed’, rather than ‘Jesus’, a Latinized version of the name we now use as ‘Joshua’, and a fairly common personal name then as it is now.

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