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.”

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