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Is there something I’m missing about the meaning of “hell”? “Funnier than hell” seems, in typical context, to mean very funny, but I can’t find anything funny about hell. Can somebody please explain this?

Note: I’m posting an answer to this question, simultaneously with posting the question itself. I feel no need to “accept” my own answer, I invite others to answer the question as well and I welcome comments.

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    There isn't really any "meaning" to hell here. It's just the most common "swearword" added as an intensifier, in usages such as funny as hell, funny as heck, funny as fuck. – FumbleFingers Mar 18 '14 at 19:02
  • I agree, I used different words, but I tried to say as much in my answer. I don't know that it's the most common intensifier, but it's certainly one of the most innocent of the common ones. – Jolenealaska Mar 18 '14 at 19:13
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    Obviously there are a helluva lot of contexts where people want something a bit less crude than f**k. – FumbleFingers Mar 18 '14 at 19:28
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    Why did you post the question if you already knew the answer? Did you just want to chat about it or something? – Jay Mar 18 '14 at 21:30
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    @Jolenealaska: I don't really know. Here's an NGram supporting my feeling that WW2 was the heyday for funny as hell, and that funnier than hell is quite rare by comparison. I must admit that second one in particular sounds to me more like something a Chinese student, say, with quite good English skills might come out with, rather than an actual native speaker today. – FumbleFingers Mar 18 '14 at 22:57
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There are two very distinct usages of the word “hell”. In the first usage, the word only means what you know it means.

From Google:

noun: hell; noun: Hell

  1. a place regarded in various religions as a spiritual realm of evil and suffering, often traditionally depicted as a place of perpetual fire beneath the earth where the wicked are punished after death. -synonyms: the netherworld, the Inferno, the infernal regions, the abyss -antonyms: heaven

  2. a state or place of great suffering; an unbearable experience. "I've been through hell" -synonyms: a misery, torture, agony, a torment, a nightmare, an ordeal -antonyms: paradise

Used in this way, the word isn’t swearing. Just use it as a normal noun. There are people that would disagree with that, those people might suggest that hell is always a “bad word”. I can only say that I consider that attitude to be extreme. You’re not likely to encounter that attitude in the US except in enclaves of piety. Further, there is no need to self-censor the use of that word because children or your mother-in-law are present. It’s just a word.

The second usage if the word is as an exclamation. Used in this way, it is swearing. It’s a baby swearword. Using the word “hell” is often the first swearing children will do. The word “dammit” is right there with it. Kids are kind of testing the waters of the big bad world of grown-up swearing when they first start using those two words. “Hell” is swearing, but it’s relatively benign, it’s frequently used when people feel like swearing, but don’t want to be extreme about it.

The word “hell” is kind of the little tag-along brother of the big-bad swearword of them all, you know the one, it‘s four letters long and starts with “F”. If that is at all unclear, go to YouTube and search for George Carlin. He actually explains English swearing very well, just understand that his videos are Not Suitable for Work!

So “hell” (like his big, tough, older brother) as a swearword can be twisted to say pretty much anything, even things that make no sense. “Funnier than hell” is just one example of that. It’s just a way of interjecting a fairly innocent swearword.

  • Agreed. I'd say that for a religious person who believes in Hell, reference to Hell itself (1) is never swearing. "I've been through hell" (defn 2) may mildly offend such a person in reference to what would surely be a trivial suffering compared to actual hell (defn 1). Whether that means it "is swearing" or not is difficult to say. – hunter Mar 18 '14 at 15:49
  • Sorry, my comment was inarticulate. What I mean is that I think the reason someone very religious would be offended by definition (2) of hell is that it trivializes definition (1), and not that it "is a swear word." (In the same way that I don't like, say, the words "genocide" or "torture" being thrown around lightly.) I still feel inarticulate; I hope this makes sense. Thanks for your question and answer! – hunter Mar 18 '14 at 15:51
  • Believe it or not, I struggled with the word "piety". I even brought it up in chat before I posted. I agree that it gets a bit touchy there. If you've got a better way to say it, I'm all ears. I understand too about qualms with definition 2. Just bringing it up (as you have) adds to the discussion. It's not a black and white thing. – Jolenealaska Mar 18 '14 at 15:56
  • @hunter Note that the second definition is not the second usage but an aspect of the first usage (I stumbled over that myself!). That doesn't make your comments invalid - I just point out in case you misunderstood, as I did initially, that definition 2 is not what Jolenealaska is saying "is swearing". – nxx Mar 18 '14 at 18:57
  • @nxx Thank you. Yes, the second definition is a part of the first usage. It is my opinion that using the word that way is not swearing, but it does subvert the theological usage. – Jolenealaska Mar 18 '14 at 19:06
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I see this phrase in a different way.

Funnier than Hell has two perplexing words - funny and hell! To my (and probably to many) surprise, hell and Hell have different meanings.

I think this phrase takes a particular meaning from many as mentioned in dictionaries.

funny - Beyond or deviating from the usual or expected OR not as expected (usually in negation)
hell - Any place of pain and turmoil OR A cause of difficulty and suffering
Hell - (Christianity) the abode of Satan and the forces of evil; where sinners suffer eternal punishment OR (religion) the world of the dead

So, when you get into the trouble which is not expected and it has caused you a difficulty or suffering, this phrase makes sense.

Please note - As stated by WordWeb, the phrase better go with hell and not Hell. Having this said, the sentence preferably have *Funnier/funnier than hell (and not Hell). Also note that if the phrase is the title, it's fine because in the title, we do capitalize the first letter of words. This means the hell will be written as Hell but would serve the meaning of hell as in the dictionary!

  • This negative interpretation is one that is never intended by any native speaker of BrE or AmE, but it is very interesting you point it out. It reminds me of some confusing miscommunication with an Indian friend of mine when she said she would miss a deadline and I told her "that's too bad". I meant to tell her not to worry about it, as it really wasn't that important. She interpreted it literally as "that is very, very bad". It took me some time to figure out why she was so unhappy with my reaction :) – oerkelens Mar 19 '14 at 7:55
  • @oerkelens if you tell me that it's too bad I would not sleep for that night thinking I lost yet as a client. – Maulik V Mar 19 '14 at 8:33
  • I have become very careful using the expression when communicating with Indian acquaintances because the same happened to that friend of mine. Her initial reaction to a heartfelt "WTF" was also one of panic :) – oerkelens Mar 19 '14 at 8:43

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