Take the 2-minute tour ×
English Language & Usage Stack Exchange is a question and answer site for linguists, etymologists, and serious English language enthusiasts. It's 100% free, no registration required.

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

e.g.

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

vs

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?

e.g.

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

share|improve this question
    
related: Clarifying the usage of “hella” –  Matt Эллен Jan 3 '12 at 14:53

5 Answers 5

up vote 6 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.

share|improve this answer

"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'.

share|improve this answer
    
How would this work for the phrase "a hell of a time"? How can "time" be strengthened? –  Urbycoz Jan 3 '12 at 11:23
1  
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

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

Example:

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.

Slang:

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.

share|improve this answer

It refers to the extremity of goodness or badness.

share|improve this answer

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.

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.