The more common and oldest English term to refer to the infernal region is Hell:

  • Old English hel, helle, "nether world, abode of the dead, infernal regions, place of torment for the wicked after death," from Proto-Germanic *haljo "the underworld".

A foreign term with the same meaning entered the English Laguage centuries later. The term is Inferno and its usage appear to be from the works of the medieval poet Dante Alighieri.

  • 1834, "Hell, the infernal regions," from Italian inferno, from Late Latin infernus "Hell," in classical Latin "the lower world". The Italian form inferno has been used in English since 1834, via Dante.

Curiously, the relative adjective infernal had been known in English for seven centuries before Inferno was used in English:

  • late 14c., "of or pertaining to the underworld," (ancient Tartarus, the sunless abode of the dead, or the Christian Hell), from Old French enfernal, infernal "of Hell, hellish" (12c.).


Dante wrote the "Devine Comedy" in the early years of the 14th century, but, for some reason his "Inferno" became popular only in the 19th century.



What made Dante's "Inferno" so popular at the beginning of the 19th century as to enter English usage?

Was it originally a BrE or an AmE thing?

  • I'm guessing that many English poets/writers of the era felt is was a clever and poetic term. But even more than that is that Dante's Inferno was a very hot property in the literary world, and everyone was referring to it at every opportunity.
    – Hot Licks
    Commented Jan 18, 2017 at 22:06
  • @HotLicks - yes, but that would have made sense also a century earlier as well as a century later...
    – user66974
    Commented Jan 18, 2017 at 22:09
  • 1
    @Josh I think it was the wording and my initial read of it. I understand what your question is now.
    – Hank
    Commented Jan 18, 2017 at 22:14
  • 1
    In my scans through the Ngram references I did find several uses of terms such as "infernae" and "inferno-human" (apparently a favorite term of Horace Walpole, as early as 1793). But it's not clear that these are rooted in "inferno" vs "infernal" or some such.
    – Hot Licks
    Commented Jan 18, 2017 at 23:23
  • 1
    @SvenYargs - Yes, but curiously unlike Paradiso and Purgatorio, Inferno was not translated to Hell, probably because the were already familiar with "infernal".
    – user66974
    Commented Jan 19, 2017 at 8:06

1 Answer 1


According to this David Lummus, in Dante's Inferno: Critical Reception and Influence, it was Romanticism that revived an interest in Dante:

"Although Dante’s poetry had been read and imitated in the English-speaking world since the generation after his death—for Geoffrey Chaucer (c. 1343-1400) Dante was just as much a model as were Boccaccio and Petrarch—the revival of interest in the Middle Ages that came with romanticism made the Comedy the figurehead for a new kind of visionary poetry. **For English romantic poets like Samuel Taylor Coleridge (1772-1834) and Henry Francis Cary (1772-1844) Dante’s poetry was an example of how Art could represent the totality of human experience, and it was their job to English that Art."

Cary, an Englishman, was apparently best known for his free verse translation which is here. I think it was published in 1814, according to Wikipedia.

https://www.britannica.com/biography/Henry-Francis-Cary, a short bio of him.

  • So it may have been specific people that initiated the popularity? Because of the romanticism?
    – Hank
    Commented Jan 18, 2017 at 22:18
  • 2
    Generally, when great books are translated, people start reading them. The poem's title was not changed: Dante's Inferno. So, there is the word and that's probably what started it.
    – Lambie
    Commented Jan 18, 2017 at 22:19
  • 1
    The Divine Comedy consists of 3 parts, Paradiso, Purgatorio and Inferno. Only Inferno was adopted.
    – user66974
    Commented Jan 18, 2017 at 22:21
  • 3
    The Divina Commedia is in three parts. Only inferno was adopted?? Because the words paradise and purgatory were already in use, surely.
    – Lambie
    Commented Jan 18, 2017 at 22:28

Your Answer

By clicking “Post Your Answer”, you agree to our terms of service and acknowledge you have read our privacy policy.