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Lex maniac

Investigating changes in American English vocabulary over the last 40 years

from hell

(1990’s | “like you wouldn’t believe,” “simply the worst”)

Much used and much discussed, this expression has come a long way in twenty-five years. It may have been invented by comedian Richard Lewis, or perhaps he simply helped it into prominence. The question of whether Lewis deserves sole credit for this phrase has caused a minor stir; an Oxford University Press blog gives a sensible account of the question. One can find scattered uses of the construction before the mid-1980’s, to be sure. I’m told the OED has scared up a use as far back as 1902, while the notorious “From Hell” letter, sometimes attributed to Jack the Ripper, dates back to 1888 (here the phrase is intended to evoke Sheol, not just a bad night out, and it doesn’t follow a noun). Lighter cites three or four uses before 1985, none before 1960. Bukowski’s book of poems, Love is a Dog from Hell (1977), comes to mind. Frank Zappa released a record called Jazz from Hell in 1986, the year given in the Yale Book of Quotations for Lewis’s self-description, “comedian from hell.” The idea of a boss from hell took hold a couple years later as the sordid saga of Leona Helmsley followed close upon the success of the film Working Girl (1988), starring Sigourney Weaver as, you guessed it, the boss from hell. (Ads for the film used that very phrase.) This successful phrase has many fathers; within a few years, it went from esoteric to cautiously mainstream, and it has grown inexorably more common since.

When Lewis said he was a comedian from hell, he was probably being ironic, referring to an expression he used frequently in his act, as in “date from hell,” which also starts to show up in the late eighties. But Lighter (1997) also notes a favorable sense of “from hell,” as a way of saying something was wonderful or the best of its kind (perhaps akin to “hellacious”). But that sense has disappeared. urbandictionary.com shows three definitions, all relentlessly pejorative. If it’s from hell, it’s bad. The point originally, I imagine, was that if it’s from hell, it’s supernatural; someone or something from hell must be an extraordinary example of whatever it is, good or bad. If you want to eulogize a great cattle rustler, what are you going to call him, heavenly?

I want to hear in this expression an echo of “from hunger,” as in “strictly from hunger,” which indicated a disagreeable activity or process, never a person. But “from hell,” typically applied to people or animals, may now be applied to the inanimate and even abstract, from divorce to genocide (Samantha Power’s A Problem from Hell, 2002). Another nuance of this expression that we’ve frittered away is the idea that “from hell” means “the worst possible.” Not just any boss, spouse, child, customer, pet cat, etc. that’s hard to live with, but the ne plus ultra. As it’s devolved into “really bad,” it’s lost some of its power. There are two excellent blogs, dinnersfromhell.com and flightsfromhell.com, that unfortunately serve as an example of this loss of sharpness. Many of the incidents recounted there, while unfortunate, unpleasant, or unnerving, don’t even make the top ten in terms of sheer bloody awfulness.

Another question that occurs to me: Why doesn’t “from hell” denote the distillation of the worst traits of the boss, etc. — in other words, the boss from hell shouldn’t be just a nasty person or a royal pain in the ass, but should exemplify the bad traits most objectionable particularly in bosses: abuse of authority, condescending arrogance, making it hard for employees to work together, etc. Those are bad traits in anyone, of course, but it seems to my purist side that a boss from hell should be a terrible BOSS, not just a TERRIBLE boss.

Why hasn’t anyone done this? A game show, or a talent show, in which groups of abysmal lawyers, tenants, neighbors, etc. are presented to the studio audience and the viewers at home, all of whom vote to choose the one who deserves the infernal crown. No shortage of people to audition for a show like that, but I don’t know how many of us could bear to watch.

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