Idioms add color and nuance to language. But some idioms confuse more than they illuminate. “Hard as hell or hail” is one such idiom. What does it mean? And where did this odd phrase come from? This post looks at the history and meaning of “hard as hell or hail.”
What Does “Hard as Hell or Hail” Mean?
This idiom describes something extremely hard or difficult. For example:
- The metal was as hard as hell or hail.
- The exam questions were as hard as hell or hail.
“Hell” refers to the place of eternal punishment in some religions. “Hail” refers to small balls of ice that fall during storms. So something “as hard as hell or hail” is as hard as imagined eternal damnation or balls of ice.
This highlights the hyperbolic nature of this phrase. It uses extreme comparisons to emphasize hardness.
Origins and History
The origins of “hard as hell or hail” are murky. It seems to have emerged in the 1800s American South.
Some trace it back to the King James Bible. Isaiah 28:17 contains a passage comparing hail to God’s judgment:
“the hail shall sweep away the refuge of lies”
The hell comparison may come from folk beliefs about the hardness of hell. Hard as stone, iron, and adamant (a mythical indestructible mineral) were common similes. Comparing hardness to the eternal torments of hell emphasized the extreme degree.
The earliest known usage comes from a 19th century account of a Georgia criminal trial. A witness described someone’s skull as “hard as hell or hail.”
Another early sighting is in Joseph Baldwin’s The Flush Times of Alabama and Mississippi (1853). Baldwin wrote:
“His head was hard as hell and hail and his heart was hid away where you couldn’t find it without a search-warrant.”
This idiom seems to have started in the American South in the 1800s.
It spread through the Southern dialect and appears often in the works of Southern writers like Mark Twain, William Faulkner, and Flannery O’Connor.
For example, here’s Twain using it in Huckleberry Finn (1884):
“His skull was as hard as hell and hail.”
And Faulkner in The Hamlet (1940):
“Durn him, durn his hard as hell or hail hide.”
The Southern origin may be why “hell” is used instead of “heck.” Southern dialects frequently use religious references for emphasis.
Like many idioms, “hard as hell or hail” has inspired creative variations:
- Hard as hell and hail
- Tough as hell or hail
- Mean as hell and hail
“Hell and hail” replaces the “or,” making a rhyming phrase. “Tough” and “mean” swap in for “hard” to describe other qualities.
Some sources interpret “hard as hell or hail” literally.
They compare the hardness of actual hail and fiery hell. But this misses the idiom’s exaggerated nature.
A 1912 encyclopedia argued:
“Hail cannot equal hell in hardness. Hail is ice, but hell is far hotter than ice.”
This literal reading seems like a stretch. The phrase isn’t meant to be scientifically analyzed!
Confusion with Similar Idioms
“Hard as hell or hail” is often mixed up with two other idioms:
- Hard as nails
- Cold as hell
“Hard as nails” is an older idiom dating back to the 1600s. It compares hardness to iron nails.
“Cold as hell” refers to extreme cold instead of hardness. But the hell comparison creates confusion with “hard as hell.”
Is It Offensive?
Some avoid this phrase to steer clear of religious references. Others dislike the mild profanity of “hell.”
But most idiom dictionaries list “hard as hell or hail” without any offensive label. It’s not considered vulgar or blasphemous by modern standards.
Still, the religious connotations may bother some readers. Using less controversial idioms like “hard as nails” can avoid this issue.
While “hard as hell or hail” has an unusual history and sound, it’s a legitimate English idiom. This hyperbolic phrase originated in 19th century Southern American dialects. It uses exaggerated comparisons to convey extreme hardness. Just don’t take the “hell” and “hail” parts literally!
- “Hard as hell or hail” describes something extremely difficult or impenetrable.
- It originated in the 19th century Southern US, where religious phrases were commonly used for emphasis.
- The phrase is hyperbolic, not meant to be scientifically analyzed.
- Although somewhat odd sounding today, it’s not considered offensive or vulgar.
- Similar idioms like “hard as nails” avoid the religious references.
So next time you describe something as “hard as hell or hail,” you’ll know the history behind this colorful phrase! Conversational idioms like this give language character.