This article uses a phrase that started me wondering, here's the relevant quote (emphasis mine):

So you're right. SQL -- the kind you write every day -- is ugly and awkward. In fact, it looks like hell on legs. And it's often pretty slow.

Where exactly did the phrase "hell on legs" come from?

  • Around here, we say "Hell on wheels". Probably an American thing. Commented Jul 21, 2011 at 14:34
  • @Malvolio, for Hell on Wheels, see here. Commented Jul 21, 2011 at 22:12
  • 1
    According to the always-right Wikipedia "The phrase "Hell on Wheels" was originally used to describe the itinerant collection of flimsily assembled gambling houses, dance halls, saloons, and brothels that followed the army of Union Pacific railroad workers westward as they constructed the American transcontinental railroad in the 1860s." ("Gambling hell" was slang for a casino.) Commented Jul 22, 2011 at 0:22
  • "Hell on two legs" is a common idiom to refer to curmudgeons, and especially to rambunctious kids. But I have no idea what it is supposed to evoke in the case of SQL.
    – Phil Sweet
    Commented Jan 23, 2021 at 0:49

2 Answers 2


"X on legs" is a way of saying that someone or something is the personification of X. This means that they embody the nature of X, by being so extreme in their X-ness as to be identifiable with X itself.

For example, there's not just hell on legs, but sex on legs (a very attractive person), trouble on legs (a person who causes a lot of trouble), and so on. I think that you could say this for any quality X - it's not limited to just a few set phrases.

In "SQL is hell on legs", the hell is referring to a place or state of misery, torment, or wickedness (Merriam-Webster). So it is saying that SQL is so wretchedly awful as to have become the literal embodiment of woe.

In other uses of hell on legs, other qualities of hell may be invoked (it's somewhere you don't want to be, it's where wicked people go, it's generally ominous or threatening). The earliest use I can find is to describe a stove or furnace, presumably since hell is hot:

When my uncles were boys they used to sneak down from the arctic regions and dress in front of this ornate hell-on-legs.

(from Be it ever so humble by Dwight Farnham, 1942)

Our stove was a grate whose modest dimensions gave no token of an appetite so abnormal that Rushton declared it had a tape-worm. When well-fed it gave out too much heat, - became, in fact, as my chum complained, "a young hell on legs".

(from My college chums, a magazine article by Henry Augustin Beers from 1882, which is the earliest Google Books hit)

  • +1 for "so wretchedly awful as to have become the literal embodiment of woe" which is a nice turn of phrase with the added benefit of being true.
    – Kit Z. Fox
    Commented Jul 21, 2011 at 12:58

From the reference, the expression (which I've never heard before, so maybe it was coined by the article's author) looks like it is meant to convey the idea of something unpleasant which moves around, and doesn't stay in one place.

It's not clear how this applies to SQL code, but it's ugly and awkward and maybe it's a moving target.

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