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Why Is “Hell” A Bad Word?

January 18, 2014
Hell might be a bad place, but why is

Hell might be a bad place, but why is “hell” a bad word? (image via Wikimedia)

When it comes to profanity, the word “hell” isn’t that bad.  It’s not as profane as “s***” or “f***” or “c***.”  In fact, it might be the least offensive of the bad words, but when I was a kid, I still got my mouth washed out with soap if I said it in front of my parents.

A lot of words led to my mouth getting washed out with soap.  I got my mouth washed out with soap for saying “Hoover Dam.”  I probably shouldn’t have whispered “Hoover” and then shouted “DAM!!!!”  I got my mouth washed out with soap for saying “shitzhu.”  I probably shouldn’t have shouted “Sh*t” and whispered the “zhu.”  Now that I think about it, I probably deserved getting my mouth washed out with soap.

“Hell” is similar to a lot of vulgar words in that it has four letters.  Four seems to be the magic number when it comes to vulgarity.  Yeah, a lot of profanity has way more than four letters, but most root words in profanity have four letters.  In “mother****er,” the root word is four letters long.  In “pieceof****,” the root word is four letters.  The root word in “****sucker” is four letters.  Those are all pretty bad words.  The exceptions seem to be “ass” and “b*****,” and neither are THAT bad (though I’d be careful who I’d say “b*****” around because it can cause more of a reaction than the other words, depending on whom you say it to).

Getting punished for saying all those words made an impression on me, so much of an impression that I wrote this book Crap Is NOT a Bad Word!: and Other Topics Polite People Don’t Discuss .

Now available on Amazon!

But Hell is unique for a four-letter bad word.  It’s the only word that references a place.  Yeah, a few vulgar words refer to places on the body, but a body part is different than a place.  “Hell” is a place (if you believe in it), and it’s considered to be bad (if you believe in it).  But should it be profane?  The Gulag is a bad place, but if I ever shouted “Holy Gulag!” I wouldn’t have gotten my mouth washed out with soap.

It comes down to context.  When I asked my mom if “Hell” was a real place, she said I’d find out if I kept saying the word “hell.”  Then she washed my mouth out with soap.  When I told my older brother to “Go to Hell!!” after he gave me a wedgie,  I got the soap washing with no explanation. I guess saying “hell” is worse than giving somebody a wedgie.  When I used the word “hellacious” as an adjective, nobody batted an eye.

That’s how I knew “hell” shouldn’t be a bad word.  If I had said “crapola” or “f***tastic,” my breath would have smelled like Irish Spring for a month.  But “hellacious,” I could get away with.

Out of all vulgar words, I think hell is the most fun to say.  Something about the extension of the “L” sound gives it a humorous effect.  I always laughed when my dad angrily said “Hell’s bells!” in front of us (but I made sure he didn’t see me laugh).  The idea of Hell having bells was ludicrous, and the contrast with my dad’s anger made it tough not to laugh.  In school, we students would yell at each other in the hallway “Go to health!” when we were on our way to health class.  The teachers couldn’t punish us because we were simply telling our friends to go where they were supposed to go.

I don’t think “hell” should be considered a bad word.  It’s a place, and it’s too easy to say for it to be forbidden.  But I don’t want my kids to get in trouble at school, so I’ll teach them not to say “hell” in public or in front of adults.  You can have a lot of fun with the word “hell,” but you probably don’t want to end up there.

*****

When it comes to bad words, hell is just the beginning.

Find out more (much more!) in Crap Is NOT a Bad Word!

Now available on the Amazon Kindle!

It’s great!  And it’s available on the Amazon Kindle!

From → Etymology

38 Comments
  1. fullmooning permalink

    This is a great post. I had never really thought of it, but you are totally right. Why is it a “bad word?” It’s funny how the use of profanity changes when you are an adult. My boss swears casually, and it makes me feel automatically at ease, like we don’t have to be so formal with each other. I bet having your mouth washed out with soap really left an impression on how you think about swearing now 🙂 Take care.

    • I think it made swearing more fun when I got older. If I had been allowed to swear as a kid, then it might have been just routine later on. I remember feeling a burst of joy when I said “Hell’s bells” for the first time without fear of punishment. I even like writing “Hell’s bells.”

  2. lifeofareaderblog permalink

    Loved your post! I think I’m a hypocrite when it comes to the word “hell”. It’s not a bad word per se, but I won’t allow my kids to use it lol. It’s all about the way you use it. Have a great weekend.

    • Thank you! I don’t think it’s hypocrisy at all. Kids need to earn the right to swear, even if it’s the word “hell.” If they swear too much too early, it takes the effect away and it’s less fun later on. At least that’s how I justify my opinion.

      • lifeofareaderblog permalink

        I totally agree! Hell is such an awesome word to use when your mad lol!

      • Sarah permalink

        They should be able to say “hell,damn, and crap” i dont understand why these are swears… I REALLY WANNA SAY HELL YEAH ON INSTAGRAM UGHHH

  3. Michelle Rene Goodhew permalink

    Reblogged this on WRITE HERE – WRITE NOW.

  4. This is HELLarious! That “GO TO HEALTH” really got me! One of my close friends’ name is Helen…. we call her Hel for short… according to your mother, saying Hell often sends you to Hell… does this mean I shouldn’t use this nickname anymore o.O?!

    • HELLarious? That’s a good one. I wish I’d had a friend named Hel when I was kid. It would have been an interesting test case. But if I got punished for saying “shitzu,” I probably would have had to say “Hel…len” to avoid the soap.

      • You seem to like to push your boundaries, reb(h)ellious… that wasn’t my best… >.< lol anywho, it was a pleasure reading your post! keep up the funny!

  5. I think it comes down to context. If you really believe in Hell, telling someone to “go to Hell” is in effect cursing that person in the Old Testament sense. That’s not something good Christians should ever do. The word is also a constant reminder of the hot place and we don’t like thinking about it. I think if one were to do research on this one would find the word is particularly offensive in primarily Christian communities.

    On the other hand, the word apparently offends atheists as well because they resent people referring to a place that doesn’t exist. Guess we’re scr*wed either way 😉

    • My family wasn’t exactly an Old Testament kind of family. If we had been, I don’t know how much soap I would have gotten. Even New Testament and No Testament families punished their kids for saying “Hell.” I’m not sure if atheists did because when (and where) I grew up, atheists usually kept that to themselves.

  6. I don’t think the word “hell” is profane per se, yet by definition it can be seen as a swear word and offensive to some. I wouldn’t encourage children to use it, maybe until they are seen as adults.

  7. p.s: Great post btw!

  8. Like this post! I’ve heard of parents threatening to “wash your mouth out” but didn’t think it ever really happened.
    Swearing and profanity all depend on the context. “Hell” in a discussion of Milton’s Paradise Lost or a serious theological study is very different from yelling “Go to Hell!” at someone you dislike
    A common way to refer to profanity at least in Britain is to talk of “four-letter words”. Strange when you think that love and hope and good all have four letters.

    • Getting my mouth washed out was worse than I originally thought it would be. I wouldn’t do it to my own kids because now it would seem… inappropriate. “Love” and “hope” and “good” are all four letters, but they don’t directly refer to private body parts or body functions, so it’s tough to see them as vulgar, except maybe “love.” I know some people who can’t stand the word “love.”

  9. Always like this variant of an adage. “The road to good intentions is paved with hell”…..I think an old high school teacher shared this one with me. Good post.

  10. As a Christian who is still trying to break her swearing habit from days gone by, I think “hell” is offensive because to just blindly fling the word around negates its power. Hell is a place of darkness, fear, torment, pain, loneliness, and complete separationBowling fundraiser 1/3, 7pm. $25 includes pop pizza shoe rental 3 games. Do you and and anyone else want to come? from God. I think when people say a word without truly thinking of its meaning, and bring it into common speech, it becomes easier to believe that such a place doesn’t exist. Which, of course, is what Satan would want.

    I’ll be watching my language a little more closely. 🙂

    • That’s interesting. Some people would say that negating the power of the word “hell” is a good thing, but I see what you’re saying. I’ll have to think about that.

  11. L’ha ribloggato su Dentro il cerchio.

  12. If you really think about it, the notion of swearwords altogether is a bit ridiculous. Why is it that some words are more offensive than another word which means the same thing. The fact we’re discussing whether a word is an “official swearword” or not highlights how illogical the concept is. However, most cultures seem to have swearwords in, which is interesting.

    • It might be ridiculous, but I’m glad we have swear words. I like saying them (in certain situations), and I probably wouldn’t like saying them if they weren’t swear words. Yeah, it’s irrational.

  13. Here’s a song my 79 year old mother used to (and still does) sing to us girls, (her 4 daughters) just to make us smile..

    Oh Hell
    Oh Hell
    Oh Helen please be mine..

    Your feet
    Your feet
    Your features are define

    Oh Damn
    Oh Damn
    Oh Damsel please be true

    Oh hell, Oh hell, Oh Helen I live you!

  14. My great grandpa used to say this “dirty” joke:

    Name 3 garden vegetables? Lettuce (Let us), Turnip (turn up), and pea (pee).

  15. Hell is not and never was a “Bad” word.. It merely was the name for an unpleasant
    place the good people of certain religious faiths didn’t want to end up, and they thought that if you speak of it, it would bring it closer.

  16. There does seem to be a lot of inconsistency with swearing. For instance, according to the Bible, “Oh my God” is clearly wrong, whereas the F-word is just rude.
    When I was growing up we would say Helsinki, stressing the first syllable, if we wanted to pretend to swear. Here in Korea, kids say 18, since the Korean word for 18 sounds a lot like the Korean F-word.

  17. Considering all of the nonsense that the bible commands, it’s ability to possess the weaker minded is astonishing, yet even with all its flaws, it still is the most powerful weapon… ‘Hell really is a bad word yet sometimes it’s a perfect description of a time and place’

  18. I have actually been wondering a lot about this in regards to all “bad words”lately. What is the big deal? It is just a word. I get that it is rude in some contexts and can be very disrespectful but you can be rude and disrespectful with other words too. I have been trying to figure out how to allow my kids to swear at home ass long as they are not disrespectful and they learn the boundaries around it in public or school. It is definitely easier to just not allow it at all.

    • Sorry…no one should use “cuss words.” But let’s face it…sometimes we get angry and do. But kids? No! Please don’t allow your kids to use profanity. It is not upbuilding nor edifying; it’s not chic, it’s not refined, it’s nothing. Teach your kids to expand their vocacublary so as to be able to express exactly how they feel. So instead of saying: “H**l, I am so f*****g upset.” They can learn to say: “Right now, I am so distraught that I am truly overwhelmed.” And when your kids learn to speak like that…as someone else said above…maybe later they can earn the right to say those “not-so-nice words.”

  19. Tammy permalink

    It is a bad word because you are not using it as a place… you are using it when you are angry.. the Bible says let no unclean thing come out of your mouth and the word is unclean when using it to hurt someone.. if it’s a word that you don’t want your child using it and your parents didn’t want you to say it, then why is it not a bad word… yes it’s a bad place, but it’s also a bad word when not using it biblical

  20. Mindful King permalink

    I think it’s not a bad word at all. Some people do think so, but that’s their opinion, not mine. Hell is a little worse than sucks or stupid but not as bad as damn or crap … In fact, I asked my teacher in the fourth grade if crap was a bad word, and she said, “Crap? No…” meaning it wasn’t a bad word to her (not a joke!). But then when I asked her about the words shit and even “porn,” she said she was going to call my mom and she said we don’t talk like that, respectively. When I looked in the dictionary for the word “darn,” I told another lady things about it and said that “damn” wasn’t the good word and that darn is the better one. I even looked for the word “sexy,” which I think is far worse than damn or crap, and sexy wasn’t in the dictionary.

    Back to the word “hell.” Almost constantly when the topic was about “hell” I was mixing two contexts and saying it’s not a bad word when talking about a place which is the opposite of heaven but still shouldn’t be said in school. I was 10 years old, in-between 4th and 5th grade, having a conversation with my mom in the car. I have NEVER, however, considered hell to be a ‘full-on’ swear word. But my mother still cringes when a child says “butt” or something “sucks.” So she probably considers hell an impolite word to use as an exclamation. Although she doesn’t freak out over the phrase “oh my God.” I remember uttering my first swear word at 7, the f-word; and then I had a one-minute timeout in the room for using it. But I never got reprimanded or punished for saying hell, crap, damn, etc. Probably because words like “crap” come out with a lower tone than stronger curse, swear and vulgar words. Since age 8.5 or 9, I have been allowed to use swear words at home without getting into trouble, although I was told that I could not say sh*t or the b-word in school because they were bad words; so obviously I wasn’t supposed to use the f-word either. Heck, my mother didn’t even like it when I said “weenie” in reference to a SpongeBob episode and its title.

    • Mindful King permalink

      In addition, I even got reprimanded once in school in the fourth grade (by a different teacher/paraprofessional) for saying “freaking.” I thought it was just a normal word.

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