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


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


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?


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


6 Answers 6


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.


It refers to the extremity of goodness or badness.


"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'.

  • How would this work for the phrase "a hell of a time"? How can "time" be strengthened?
    – Urbycoz
    Commented Jan 3, 2012 at 11:23
  • 2
    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
    Commented Jan 3, 2012 at 11:27

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


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.


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.


The phrase, 'a hell of a thing', as in any other phrase containing the 'hell of a', string can be either negative or positive, each one only depending upon the context it is used in.


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.

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