What is the earliest known source that uses the idiom, "Stink/Smell to high heaven"?

From a preliminary search, I came across the Shakespeare Said It Firstwebsite, which states:

It smells to heaven. Spoken by King Claudius. The entire line is “O, my offense is rank, it smells to heaven. It hath the primal eldest curse upon it. A brother’s murder.” Today, the phrase “stinks to high heaven” is more generally used. While the line in Hamlet refers to the metaphorical “stench” of an evil deed, today is used mostly as a hyperbole in reference to extremely unpleasant scents

Is this indeed the first usage of this idiomatic expression? If not, what is the origin and etymology of the phrase "Stink/Smell to high heaven?" What time period?


Shakespeare did utter smells to heaven ... but I am not sure this is the origin of the idiom:

to stink to high heaven. TFD

Etymonline.com says the following:

Old English stincan "emit a smell of any kind; exhale; rise (of dust, vapor, etc.)" (class III strong verb; past tense stanc, past participle stuncen), common West Germanic (cognates: Old Saxon stincan, West Frisian stjonke, Old High German stinkan, Dutch stinken), from the root of stench. Old English had swote stincan "to smell sweet," but offensive sense also was in Old English and predominated by mid-13c.; smell now tends the same way. Figurative meaning "be offensive" is from early 13c.; meaning "be inept" is recorded from 1924. To stink to high heaven first recorded 1963. etymonline

And there are biblical references to 'smells' and 'high heaven':

God directed use of incense in Old Testament worship and the fragrant or detestable aroma, as the case may be, that rose into “high heaven” or before the “nose” of God. Paul Anderson

I am inclined to go with the etymological reference acknowledging there have been smells, good and bad, wafting to the heavens from mankind since ... the beginning.

  • @MattE.Эллен added more research!
    – lbf
    Jun 21 '18 at 23:39

There's actually a place in Buckinghamshire called High Heavens...

The woodland, forestry and furniture trade meant that the trade routes from 1750's right up to the early 1900's were incredibly active. High Heavens is situated at 'end of the line' when the new railroad was finally completed so someone commenting on the stench from the Tanners yards in West London at the time might well have coined the expression "to High Heavens," the town, rather than the ethereal realm.

  • Any academic/literary sources for this idea? Dec 6 '19 at 10:40
  • 2
    The "actual place in Buckinghamshire called High Heavens" is, I think you will find, the High Wycombe waste disposal site, which has been in existence only since the 1950s. The likelihood seems to me that it was named after the idiom "stinks to high heaven" rather than the other way around. If you have any reference to a place of that name which dates from the eighteenth-century or earlier I would be interested to hear more about it.
    – WS2
    Jan 5 '20 at 11:23
  • There is a wood in the Marlow area called "High Heavens Wood" - but I have not been able to discover anything relating to its history.
    – WS2
    Jan 5 '20 at 11:29

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