English Language & Usage Stack Exchange is a question and answer site for linguists, etymologists, and serious English language enthusiasts. Join them; it only takes a minute:

Sign up
Here's how it works:
  1. Anybody can ask a question
  2. Anybody can answer
  3. The best answers are voted up and rise to the top

It's etymology is given as:

hell-bent, 1835, U.S., originally slang, from hell + bent

How do the the words "hell + bent," when taken together, form the definition "determined to achieve something at all costs?"

Edit (thanks to Medica's response):

In this context, could somehow "hell" imply going to disproportionate or irrational lengths to achieve an end? The term "selling one's soul to the devil" comes to mind as well in this sense.

share|improve this question
up vote 6 down vote accepted

To be bent on something is to be determined to do it, from to bend meaning to go in a certain direction, with implications of “determined, resolute.” To be hell-bent should mean going in the direction of hell but it doesn't; it means to be wholeheartedly determined to get something done, where hell acts as an intensifier (e.g., "What the hell are you doing?” and "Hell yes!" don’t really have anything to do with hell.) The OED cites:

1731 Ab-origines in Arms..did then resort, In Haste to Susquehanna Fort, Hell bent on Thoughts of Massacree.
1835 A large encampment of savages,..‘hell-bent on carnage’.
1891 The state of Texas, or at least its legislature, went hell-bent for the reform of railroads.

There is a book out with hell bent in the title:

Hell-Bent: Obsession, Pain, and the Search for Something Like Transcendence in Competitive Yoga

Too good a pun to pass up!

share|improve this answer

Your Answer

 
discard

By posting your answer, you agree to the privacy policy and terms of service.

Not the answer you're looking for? Browse other questions tagged or ask your own question.