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I find it a very curious thing that the phrase "hell of a" seems to be suitable to describe both good and bad things.


It was a great party. We had a hell of a time.


We sold the house eventually. But we had a hell of a time.

I certainly hear it more commonly used as in the first instance, but I imagine that this is a regional thing. But I wonder which sense came first. What is the etymology of the phrase?

And, with this in mind, how should I interpret a sentence with very little context?


We had a hell of a time when we visited my parents over Christmas.

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It's part of the cluster of taboo terms and euphemisms surrounding the word Hell. It can be positive, negative, or neutral, depending on the idiom used. –  John Lawler May 3 at 17:21

6 Answers 6

up vote 7 down vote accepted

The phrase "a hell of a time" contains two idioms. "A hell of" and "a time".

As other answers have said "a hell of" just emphasises the strength of something.

That man has a hell of a cheek

She has a hell of a talent

He has a hell of a big nose

... and so on.

"A time" often refers to a period that was interesting in some unspecified way, especially when preceded with a strengthening adjective.

He had quite a time during his illness

What a time we had on holiday!

Put them together, and you have:

We had a hell of a time.

There is nothing in the sentence to say whether they had a hell of a good time, a hell of an exciting time, a hell of a bad time, a hell of a dreary time. All of that is to be inferred from context.

And perhaps the speaker doesn't want you to know the truth.

Related: if you say "I had a hellish time", that's always bad.

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"hell of a" as an idiom is merely superlative, strengthening the noun that follows.

That said, we generally use it to imply a great (amount of) in the positive sense. In the negative sense, it would be just 'hell'.

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How would this work for the phrase "a hell of a time"? How can "time" be strengthened? –  Urbycoz Jan 3 '12 at 11:23
It is not time itself that is intensified as you seem to understand time literally -- it is the experience implied by time. So whatever experience it was, it was too good/ too bad. A 'good time' is a good experience over a time, right? –  Kris Jan 3 '12 at 11:27

It refers to the extremity of goodness or badness.

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Dictionary of idioms: A hell of a time- A difficult task, an awful time.


When he's drunk I have a hell of a time getting his car keys. He doesn't want to give me his keys.

Similar idiom :

a dickens of a time , one hell of a time.

N.B. They all mean the same- dealing with one very difficult task, one major problem.


a hell of a time - extremely good spend time.

"Hell of a" refers to something impressive, extremely good. It is mostly vulgar and American slang.

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The phrase, 'a hell of a thing', as in any other phrase containing the 'hell of a', string can be either negative or positive, each one only depending upon the context it is used in.

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I'm not sure, but the phrase "hell of a time" might have originated shortly before WWI with a Brit named Flynn Mitchell I suspect was a music hall entertainer. I'm basing this on a hint on page 176 of the book "On the Front Line: True World War One Stories," edited by C.B. Purdom.

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