Q: I was wondering if you know the origin of the expression “come hell or high water.” I just used it to say I intend to vote in November come hell or high water. I must have learned it from my mother, who used many colorful sayings that I don’t hear anymore
A: Before getting to that expression, let’s look at the word “hell,” which has been used in a hell of a lot of ways since it first appeared in Old English writing, first as the dwelling place of all the dead, then as a place where the wicked were punished after death.
The earliest example in the Oxford English Dictionary is from the Vespasian Psalter, a ninth-century manuscript in Latin and Old English that uses the term to mean “the abode of departed spirits” and “a place of existence after death.”
In the citation, the Latin passage “veniat mors super illos et descendant in infernum viventes” is translated in Old English as “cyme deað ofer hie & astigen hie in helle lifgende” (“let death come upon them and descend into the living hell”).
The first OED citation for “hell” used in the sense of “the dwelling place of devils and condemned spirits” and “the place or state of punishment of the wicked after death” appeared in the 10th-century Blickling Homilies:
“Se gifra helle bið a open deoflum & þæm mannum þe nu be his larum lifiaþ” (“The greedy hell is open to the devil and the men who now live by his teaching”).
Notions of hell have inspired many expressions over the years, including “until hell freezes over” (meaning never, 1832); “to hell and back again” (a very long way, 1844); “raise hell” (cause great trouble, 1845); “to hell and gone” (to ruin or destruction, 1863); and “not a hope in hell” (impossible, 1923).
The expression you’re asking about—“come hell or high water,” meaning despite all obstacles—first appeared a century and a half ago in a somewhat different form. The earliest OED example, which we’ve expanded, is from a congressional report on a disputed 1870 House race in Arkansas.
In testimony on May 25, 1871, a witness notes that Gov. Powell Clayton intended to run for the US Senate, and quotes him indirectly as saying, “they might fight him as much as they were a mind to, but he was going there in spite of hell and high water.”
The dictionary’s earliest example for the exact phrase you use is from Land Below the Wind, a 1939 memoir by Agnes Newton Keith about her life in North Borneo (now Sabah). Here’s an expanded version of the citation:
“Too puny a voice mine to say, like Queen Victoria, ‘Let empires be built!’—and, come hell or high water, they build ’em. Likewise too untutored a mind mine to attempt the argument, ‘Let empires be destroyed!’—and, come hell or high water, they blast ’em.”
Although your version of the expression is the usual one, the OED notes that the conjunction linking “hell” and “high water” is sometimes “and,” “also,” or “nor.”
Getting back to the early beginnings of “hell,” John Ayto’s Dictionary of Word Origins says that etymologically it means “a hidden place.” Its ultimate source is a prehistoric Proto-Indo-European root that’s been reconstructed as kel- (cover, hide).
Ayto says the “cover” sense of the ancient root gave English the word “hall” while the “hide” sense gave it “hell,” so “hall and hell were originally ‘concealed or covered places,’ although in very different ways: the hall with a roof, hell with at least six feet of earth.”