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.

If you say, "I'll see you at the party", you mean, "You and I are going to the party and I will see and speak to you there."

If you say, "I'll see you hang!", you mean "You will be sentenced to hang for your misdeeds, and I plan to attend the execution" or even "I will take steps to ensure [i.e., 'see to it'] that you are properly punished."

But if you say "I'll see you in Hell", do you mean "You are destined for eternal punishment, which I will witness from a pleasant seat in Heaven" or "I'm so determined to stop you that I will take steps so extreme that they will cause both our deaths and even earn me damnation alongside you."

It probably won't happen any time soon, but if the occasion to snarl "I'll see you in Hell" does arise, I want to be able to do so in full confidence that I'm saying what I mean.

EDIT The collective wisdom seems to be ambiguous on whether the implication is "You are going Hell for your misdeeds, and I will help the process along by killing you" and "Your death (which I may or may not hasten) and subsequent damnation will occur before you are able to carry out your current plans."

share|improve this question
2  
Perhaps it is a shortened way of saying "I'll see to it that you go to Hell." Another example might be "I'll see you out," often interpreted as "I'll see to it that you go out [the door]." –  JAM Aug 6 '12 at 18:18
1  
@JAM -- unless the speaker is actually the Almighty, it seems like you are interpreting the expression as an elliptical death threat (since the most efficient way one mortal can move another towards Perdition is by killing him). –  Malvolio Aug 6 '12 at 18:23
3  
It's certainly not the original or usual meaning, but I have heard "See you in Hell" used in a friendly way - fighter pilots leaving the ready room, for example - to mean "You and I may not survive this, but since neither of us has led a blameless life, we can be assured of meeting again in a warm climate." I've also seen this particular usage in far more trivial circumstances, used jokingly as a replacement for "See you later." –  MT_Head Aug 6 '12 at 18:25
    
It could mean a host of things, depending on how well the two people in conversation are getting along, and how much the speaker is snarling. Sometimes the expression is used rather lightly (as in the famous Why Worry? joke); other times, it's meant to make people carefully consider their eternal fate. I'd recommend that you don't overanalyze it, particularly in the absence of more context. –  J.R. Aug 6 '12 at 18:29
    
@MT_Head: I imagine that's ironic use of the "expressing hatred" sense (see my answer). –  Hugo Aug 6 '12 at 18:48

4 Answers 4

up vote 10 down vote accepted

The Shorter Dictionary of Catch Phrases (1994) defines it:

I'll see you in hell first a vehement refusal or a response to a challenge. The phrase dates from the late 19th century or earlier. Variants include I'll see you damned (or hanged) first.

This can be interpreted that it's more likely that the other person will be in hell before their claim ever becomes true. You don't necessarily need to go to hell as well.

Alternatively, it could mean you think their claim is so outlandish that it's more likely both will go to hell than it coming true.

The OED dates it to 1715, from Proceedings of the Old Bailey:

Saying G—d D—n him, twenty times over, and the High Constable too; he should see them all in Hell.

Another early quotation from 1879:

I'll see you in hell before I vote for Charlie Lake, or any other Democrat.

Finally, it can also be an expression of hatred, as demonstrated by the last quote in the OED, from a 2007 Independent on Sunday:

‘See You in Hell’ he sneered to two fellow death-row inmates he couldn't stand.

share|improve this answer
  1. The version I know is "I'll see you in hell first!", which Partridge (citing Skehan) defines as 'vehement refusal' and dates to 'latish C19'; but the discussion here finds it in 1838. I have always taken it that 'see you in' here was used in the sense of 'take steps to insure that you end in' - so the phrase would mean "I'll kill you before [I allow you to do such and such].

  2. However, the initiator of the discussion at the second link above insists on a 'modern' understanding of the phrase, without 'first', as

something more like: "I may be going to hell I may be guilty of bad things but so are you, and you, not only are you about to die, you're also going to hell, so bwahahaha!".

share|improve this answer
    
+1. Yes, the modern understanding is different, pure badass contempt. I insist on that too. :) –  Jason Orendorff Aug 10 '12 at 20:18
    
The prototype is this exchange in Empire Strikes Back: —Your tauntaun will freeze before you reach the first marker. —Then I’ll see you in Hell! That see just means meet. Han immediately departs; it’s clearly not a threat. –  Jason Orendorff Aug 10 '12 at 20:19

"I'll see you in hell" is directly from the war, especially WW2 as I've heard WW2 vets say it - eg: towards the end of the war, every soldier who was not dead already, had done a lot of horrible things, much killing, and they all assumed they were going to hell anyway... so the last killings/murder of soldiers or POWs or civilians of the war would be prefaced with "I'll see you in hell" - to show it wasn't 'personal' and that they would be all in it together, sooner or later, because the whole thing was a terrible, twisted nightmare.

share|improve this answer
1  
Can you back up your statement: "..so the last killings [...] would be prefaced with "I'll see you in hell." I've never heard of WWII soldiers saying this to the "enemy" or to an innocent civilian (you mentioned the act of murdering). –  Mari-Lou A Aug 4 '13 at 17:42

The meaning originated with the idea that believers in heaven would literally look down and enjoy the punishments visited on those suffering in hell.

The current meaning is more along the lines of "I'll make sure you go to hell" in the sense that "I'll get you there as soon as possible" (i.e. "I hope you die"), or conversely, "We're both going to hell for our crimes, and I will see you when I'm there alongside you".

share|improve this answer
1  
Given that both other answers disagree with your suggestion, unless you have evidence contradicting theirs, -1. –  Matt Эллен Apr 28 '13 at 17:32

protected by tchrist Jul 16 at 13:21

Thank you for your interest in this question. Because it has attracted low-quality answers, posting an answer now requires 10 reputation on this site.

Would you like to answer one of these unanswered questions instead?

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