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shameless pleading

Hell or High Water

And starring Esther Williams as Pocahontas.

Dear Word Detective: I would be grateful for your help in a matter of what I consider to be a common idiom. I am engaged in an increasingly frequent debate with a dear friend of mine over the phrase “hell or high water,” as in “We’ll be there come hell or high water.” I maintain that it is a mispronunciation, viz. “hail or high water,” whilst she merely looks at me as if I have placed a mysterious hair gently onto her Spanish omelet. I would be most grateful for any illumination you could provide on the origins of the expression and which is correct, as our breakfast is getting cold. — Farrar Hudkins, New Orleans, Louisiana.

Mmm, Spanish omelet. I miss breakfast. One can make it oneself, of course, but I really can’t cook when I’m half-asleep, so I usually end up with either a peanut butter sandwich or microwaved oatmeal. We tried the truckstop up at the interstate one weekend, but for eggs they serve some weird rubbery yellow substance at least three laboratories removed from any chicken.

Since you are obviously luckier than I, breakfast-wise, I’m hoping that you will forgive me for siding with your friend on the question at hand. The common form of the phrase is definitely “come hell or high water.” Your version, “come hail or high water,” makes perhaps a bit more sense, since hail and high water might both be products of bad weather, but sense, as we have often noted here, plays a very minor role in language.

One slightly surprising fact about “come hell or high water,” meaning “no matter what happens” (“I’m going to the sale at Target come hell or high water”), is that it appears to be somewhat younger than I had imagined. The first citation of the phrase in print in the Oxford English Dictionary is only from 1915, although, as is often the case with folk sayings, it was probably in oral use for quite a while before that date.

The logic of “come hell or high water” meaning “despite any obstacle” is a bit unclear. The “high water” most likely refers to flooding of a community by a swollen river, which could, at a minimum, make appointments difficult to keep. But it has also been suggested that the phrase came from the days of cattle drives in the western US, when fording a river at “high water” was a risky proposition. In any case, the “twist” of the phrase comes from the counterposition of “hell,” the locus of absolute evil, with the fairly mundane (and mild by comparison) inconvenience of “high water.”

A similar phrase from the southern US is “Lord willing and the creek don’t rise,” meaning essentially “if all goes well; barring any disaster.” The origin of this phrase would seem to be obviously tied to flooding from a “creek,” a small stream, but evidently there are people out there who believe that the reference is actually to the Creek Indian Nation (making that part of the phrase equivalent to “and if the Indians don’t rise up and attack us”). That theory is, I suppose, not absolutely impossible, but it is unlikely enough that a few years ago a participant on the American Dialect Society mailing list was moved to puckishly ask whether the original form of “come hell or high water” might, in that light, have been “come hell or Hiawatha.”

17 comments to Hell or High Water

  • ShiftR

    Having often heard ‘hell or high water’ and ‘God willing and the creek don’t rise’ down in southern Indiana, I have to say that ‘hell or Hiawatha’ made my day. I might add that creek is pronounced ‘crick’ down there in Wayne County, while the native American nation has aleways been pronounced ‘creak’ in my hearing. So the ‘Creek don’t rebel’ theory is a bunch of hooey. Absolutely impossible.

  • Satan

    Perhaps it refers to the great flood and it meant in an apocalyptic way!

  • AmericanHeretic

    When I lived in Hong Kong, I read that the origin of “come hell or high water” is English. The crown would punish a guilty person by forcing him the reach into a vat of boiling water and pull out a coin at the bottom. The severity of the crime determined the level of the water in the vat. The term “come hell or high water” designated a strong resolve that something would be done regardless of the consequences.

  • Larry

    In analyzing the words, Hell and High water, I find that both are biblical references. Both refer to total destruction of the earth and man. Both are outside our control, and both will result if we press on in a course contrary to Gods Will. “Come Hell” refers to the second coming of Christ where the final judgment will occur in the book of Revelation. Those who have not believed in the Savior Jesus Christ will spend eternity in Hell. There is no escape once they face judgment.

    “High Water” refers to the great flood in the book of Genesis. During Noah’s time, the entire world except for Noah and his sons rejected God. The result was a world wide flood destroying everyone except those who followed God.

    So you may say “I will do whatever I want” and rebel or reject God “come Hell”. But God has shown the He is able to destroy everything as evidenced by “High water”

  • Terry Barnes

    HAIL or high-water. These are both terms in regards to the weather. Whether it is coming down or coming up – nothing can stop me.

  • booboo

    What an interesting explanatin and I can see it also stemming from the idea that what may have also been in the minds of the individuals either in the Old West or the Old South, biblically speaking was the story of Noah and the Ark. I am sure back in those days (very early Christian beginnings or even prior)they didn’t have the expression in English LOL but there may have been some idiom in early Mesopotamia which alludes to a similar situation of being stuck at a crossroads, a raging river, flood or attack by some other race, tribe or religious group!

  • Whew! We had a ginormous storm last night that knocked out power to a good part of our small town. Thankfully no major injuries or anything like that.

  • Southern Woman

    Like others, I have always understood the phrase to be ‘Come hell or high water’… However, in the defense of the person who posed the question, in a deep southern accent ‘hell’ is often pronounced ‘hail.’

  • pinq

    why to accept hail, when hell sounds more in tandem!

  • john buckner

    Hell OR High water
    God willing AND the creek don’t rise

    Applying Boolean logic these statements are negations of each other, i.e., in boolean logic:

    If A OR B the “negative” or negation is:
    NOT ( A OR B ) –> (NOT A) AND (NOT B)

    So if A is Hell; B is High Water

    NOT ( Hell OR High Water ) –>
    (NOT Hell) AND (NOT High Water)
    (Loosely equivalent: God Will AND Creek Don’t Rise

    Likewise if C AND D the negation is:
    NOT ( C AND D ) –> (NOT C) OR (NOT D)

    C is God Willing; D is Creek Don’t Rise

    NOT ( God Willing AND Creek Don’t Rise ) –>
    (Loose Equiv) (NOT God) OR (NOT NOT Creek Rise)
    (Loose Equiv) HELL OR HIGH WATER

    It’s nice when literary references are mathematically correct

  • MIKE

    Isaiah 43: 1-5
    “Come hell or high water” the Lord will be with you??? Even if it doesnt fit the origin of the phrase, contrary wise it sure as hell fits the meaning of the scripture

    unleashthefighter.org

  • Laura

    Come hell or highwater derives from a particularly gruesome form of torture used in England. It was described to us on a trip to the London Dungeon. The “hell” was a burning hot fire poker shoved down the person’s throat, and the “high water” was the water thrown in after that to “put out” the fire. If you could survive that, you could go on to do anything…come hell or high water.

  • Derek Pearce

    The way I heard it the term “Hell or High Water” as in “to go through..” was derived from an English torture device. A cylinder about the length of the forearm with a bar that the prisoner would grip or be fastened to. Boiling water was poured in. Immersing the hand was low water. Half way to the elbow was middle water and the elbow was high water. So to vow to go though Hell (biblical Hell) or High Water was a vow to suffer pain and torture rather than break an oath or trust.

  • diklxik (figure it out)

    come hell or high water!

    I will be there?

    Ive used thr sane many years but only tonight really thought where from it does come, compaired to what i mean to be saying.

    i for some reason thought it somewhat biblical.
    With hell being the obvious, Hell the house satin built.

    Or maybe just resides there, and we the people actually built by and through creation over time on earth?

    And high water, is somewhat an obvious referance to flood, and no flood bigger than that of what Noah prepaired for and floated through¿

    Allthough, this very moment i realize the near impossabilities of that occurance, due to the rate of time it would take for earth to absorbe that much water and the sun to evaporate as much as needed to allow Noah to reach dry land with cargo in tow, and not be any more than a bunch of meals providing his survival through the time floating aimlessly.

    So hell or high water actual origins are WTFK
    (w=who TF k=knows)?

    for real the English language is clearly as mad (insane) as who created the conundrum, the English!
    No pun included, riddle, or sense applies, its English and built to fit 2% of society with money and power to rule over the remaining 98% like master and slave!
    think not?

  • Andrew

    I didn’t read all of the comments to see if this had been mentioned, but without sources to point to, I assume upon hearing the phrase ‘hell or high water’ that the ‘high water’ part would be referring to Noah’s flood, as that is the only ‘high water’ that might be reasonably be compared to ‘hell.’ Noah’s flood was obviously a horrific event, whether you consider it fiction or nonfiction, localized or global.

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