Wednesday, January 10, 2024

Episode 220: Hell Freezes Over


This week Shauna and Dan explore the phrase "hell freezes over". We start with the concept of hell and how it became to be known as an eternal, fiery place. Then we look at all the interesting ways this phrase has been used. Bonus: Dan hates speedboats, Shauna stans Doré, and we answer the question of bad hair cut or bad dye job. 

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Bunny Trails: A Word History Podcast
Episode 220: When Hell Freezes Over
Record Date: January 1, 2024
Air Date: January 10, 2024


Welcome to Bunny Trails, a whimsical adventure of idioms and other turns of phrase.

I’m Shauna Harrison

And I’m Dan Pugh

Each week we take an idiom or other turn of phrase and try to tell the story from its entry into the English language, to how it’s used today.

Opening Hook
Years ago, Shauna, you were going on a cruise with your family. And I remember you telling me some of the excursions you were doing. One possible excursion was a speed boat ride and you noticed I physically shuddered at that. My two ways I don’t want to die are burning to death and drowning, and if something goes wrong with a speed boat, it would incorporate both of those into my death which seems like the worst possible fate. And as you saw my face, you asked me if I’d ever go on a speed boat and I told you “maybe when hell freezes over”.


According to the Oxford English Dictionary, when hell freezes, or till hell freezes over means:

at some date in the impossibly distant future; for ever; never.
End Quote

And if we weren’t clear, it is doubtful that I would ever take a fast ride on a speed boat.

But before we jump into hell freezing over, we need to do a quick conceptual look into “hell” to make this phrase make sense. In Greek, Roman, Mesopotamian, Christian, Islamic, Scandanavian, and probably more mythologies, hell is where the dead go after they die. In some cases everyone goes there, in others only some people go there based on merit, caste, or other factors.   

In the Judeo-Christian traditions, which has had heavy influence on the English speaking world and therefore the English language, hell is often depicted as a fiery place. This wasn’t always the case, as we hear from this article in Sojourners:

The earliest parts of the Hebrew Bible, around the eighth century B.C., described the afterlife as Sheol, a shadowy, silent pit where the souls of all the dead lingered in a minimal state of silent existence, forever outside of the presence of God. By the sixth century B.C., Sheol was increasingly viewed as a temporary place, where all the departed awaited a bodily resurrection. The righteous would then dwell in the presence of God, and the wicked would suffer in the fiery torment that came to be called “Gehenna,” described as a cursed place of fire and smoke.
Early depictions of the afterlife in ancient Greece, an underworld realm called “Hades,” are similar. There, the listless spirits of the dead lingered in an underground twilight existence, ruled by the god of the dead. Evildoers suffered gloomy imprisonment on an even deeper level called “Tartarus.”

Beginning in the fourth century B.C., after the Greek King Alexander the Great conquered Judea, elements of Greek culture began to influence Jewish religious thought. By time of the first gospels, between 65 and 85 A.D., Jesus refers to the Jewish belief in the eternal fire of Gehenna. Elsewhere, he mentions evildoers’ banishment from the kingdom of God, and the “blazing furnace” where the wicked would suffer sorrow and despair and “where there will be weeping and gnashing of teeth.” Jesus also mentions the Greek Hades when describing how the forces of evil — “the gates of Hades” — would not prevail against the church.
End Quote

I mention this because it’s important to understand that while Old English was taking root from the celtic languages, christianity was also taking hold in those areas.

And thus, the idea of a fiery hell has been around since the beginnings of the English languages. Which means, for most people who grew up in English speaking homes, unless they had some other cultural tradition they were taught, they probably thought of hell as an eternal fiery place. And thus, the idea of it freezing over would be nearly impossible.

So, with that thought, let’s jump into our phrase. I saw many websites attribute this to F. Scott Fitzgerald in the early 1900s who according to these sites was known for signing letters “Yours till hell freezes over”, but as we will see the phrase was in use long before that, including quite a bit of popularity during the United States Civil War in the 1860s.

Even though the phrase isn’t used, the allusion to a frozen hell is made in The Divine Comedy by Dante Alighieri which was written in Italian and published in 1321. One of my favorite images of this, available on the Patreon at is by Gustave Doré which was taken from Canto 34 of Dante’s Inferno in which Satan is trapped in the frozen central zone in the Ninth Circle of Hell. This image was originally published in 1861 with a collection of his works based on Inferno.

We’ll look more into the life of Gustave Doré and his art based on Dante’s work in the Behind the Scene video, which airs at every Friday. For now, let’s jump into this phrase.

The first example of our English phrase I could find in print was from a newspaper called The Gospel Anchor out of Troy, NY dated February 11, 1832. This example was from someone who had received the newspaper in error, seemingly often. They returned the paper via the post with this note and the paper redacted two points:

Stop this paper or send it to Syracuse, where <name redacted> lives. I shall send it back until hell freezes over, but what I will stop it. I don’t want to pay postage on the <censored> thing.
End Quote

Here’s one from the Wisconsin Tribune dated March 16, 1849. It’s in a letter that was written February 15, 1849. In it he is pretty upset about some hypocrites and blasphemers.

These men of course would pray with their lips and blasfeme in their harts, and though they deceive men, and get fat on their substance, God has set his mark on them, and if there was a hell for no others, if all others can be forgiven, still the hipocrite shall roast till hell freezes over, and then he shall freeze till Greenland thaws out
End Quote

Here’s one from the United States’ Civil War timeframe, this one a conversation held December 29, 1862, according to The Life and Campaigns of General U.S. Grant by the Reverend PC Headley. The book was published in 1868. This was during a 4 hour flag of truce where the slain and wounded tended to after the late December 1862 battle.

How far is it to Vicksburg?

Rebel picket: So far you’ll never git thar
Federal picket: How many men have you got?
Rebel picket: Enough to clean you out.

Then another rebel, who seemed to be the stump speaker of the squad, with a flourish, added:
Banks has been whipped out at Port Hudson, Memphis has been retaken, and you Yankees will not take Vicksburg till hell freezes over.
End Quote

Spoiler alert. The 47-day siege of Vicksburg the next midsummer was a decisive victory for the Yankees.

Here’s another one from the time. This comes to us from the work Patriotic Addresses: In America and England from 1859 to 1885 on Slavery, The Civil War, and the Development of Civil Liberty in the United States by Henry Ward Beecher and John Raymond Howard. The book was written in 1887, but this entry is referencing posters that were found in Manchester, England in 1863. The posters were declaring there was a War on Christians. The Christians in this poster’s case were slave-holding land owners in the USA south and the War on Christians was, like many supposed War on Christians in the United States, a stand-in for whatever was really being fought over. These posters were put up in support of the South, which at that point were calling themselves the Confederate States of America.

A couple of things that are referenced in the quote are The Trent Affair which occurred in 1861 where Charles Wilkes, a U.S. Navy Officer, captured two Confederate envoys aboard the British mail ship, the Trent. Great Britain accused the United States of violating British neutrality, and the incident created a diplomatic crisis between the United States and Great Britain during the United States’ Civil War.

Also referenced will be General Butler. Benjamin Butler was a Union Army general in the United States Civil War.

And Cheever is George Cheever, a well-known and controversial anti-slavery minister and writer.

I’ll read a little from the poster which has the headline “Who is Hy. Ward Beecher?”

He is the man who said the best blood of England must be shed to atone for the Trent affair. He is the man who advocates a War of Extermination with the South, - says it is incapable of “re-generation.” but proposes to re-people it from the North by “generation”... He is the friend of that inhuman monster, General Butler. He is the friend of that so-called Gospel Preacher, CHEEVER, who said in one of his sermons - “Fight against the South till Hell Freezes, and then continue the battle on the ice”...
End Quote

I should note that while that interesting take on hell freezing over and fighting on ice here is attributed this Cheever, I also saw it attributed to Parson Brownlow in the Chicago Daily Tribune on July 3, 1861 and a similar phrase to an anonymous letter-writer on July 9, 1861 in the Juliet Signal out of Joliet, Illinois and yet another similar version as the toast at an independence day celebration in Coshocton, OH in the July 11, 1861 edition of the Holmes County Republican.   So I’m not making any claims on who originated that one.

Let’s move out of the United State’s Civil War and look at some more uses.

This one is out of The Reformers Dawn out of Ellensburg, WA dated January 1, 1894.

I am in favor of fighting for free coinage of silver 16 to 1; not all summer, but till hell freezes over. - Gov Waite, of Colo.
End Quote

Here is a fun one in the Montgomery County Sentinel out of Rockville, Maryland, February 13, 1936. It’s a photograph of a forested area. There is a small dam on a creek in the image and everything is blanketed in snow. The caption reads, Hell Freezes Over at Last. Here are the details:

You’ve often heard the expression “when hell freezes over,” but this time it’s literally true. Buried under six inches of snow is the little settlement of Hell, Michigan, a name given by one of the early settlers who was arrested for not paying his taxes on whisky he was distilling there. He christened the town Hell, and Hell it has been ever since. The photograph shows a dam at Hell frozen over. Although the little river is not named, it presumably is the River Styx.
End Quote

Here’s one more, which I just find to be an interesting story. This one is from The News and Views out of Jacksonville, NC and is dated March 18, 1952. The story is titled, “Accusing Stone Quietly Taken From Cemetery”:

Somebody has quietly removed a tombstone accusing a mountain recluse, Charles Hamilton Hamp Kendall of a 44-year-old murder he never committed.

It may be the final step in the vindication of the 75-year-old Kendall, although he said last fall he would make the dead man’s heirs pay for the slander if he has to keep hammering at it until hell freezes over and then keep hammering on the ice.

The tombstone in the cemetery of the rural Nelson’s Chapel church near here said:

H. Lawrence Nelson. Born Dec 16, 1880. Murdered and robbed by Hamp Kendall and John Vickers Sep. 15, 1906.

Kendall and Vickers were convicted of murder and spent 10 years in jail before they were released in 1917 when another man, Sam Green, confessed the slaying. Green died before he could be brought to trial. Vickers died a few years later.

Kendall and Vickers were unconditionally pardoned by then Gov. Thomas Beckett.

In 1947, the legislature awarded Kendall almost $5,000 for his false imprisonment - about $500 a year. Two years later it passed another bill making slanderous epitaphs illegal.
End Quote

Before we head to our modern uses, we need to say a huge thank you to those who make Bunny Trails possible.

A Quick Thank You
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We have new things every weekday on the feeds, including a conversation about what everyone is reading, early access to the show, patron’s only polls, and our behind the scenes video which always includes a little about our week before the show and a cool feature after the show.

We’ve got some other pretty cool stuff, too, like Original Digital Artwork once a month, made by Shauna, and awesome name recognition like Pat Rowe gets every episode. And our top spot is currently occupied by the amazing Mary Halsig Lopez.

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Modern Uses

1979 Musical
When Hell Freezes Over, I'll Skate is a 1979 televised stage play drama featuring Jeffrey Anderson-Gunter and Brenda Braxton. Everyone’s favorite 90’s TV dad Reginald VelJohnson is also in it. According to, the show is:

Vignettes of monologues regarding African American history
End Quote

We’ll link to it on Youtube if you want to watch it. It’s about an hour.

1994 Album
Hell Freezes Over is a 1994 album by the Eagles. The first song on that album Get Over It was a formative song for me, though admittedly it was the least popular of the 4 new songs included on the album. Love Will Keep Us Alive was the most popular and went on to reach #1 on the chart.

The title to this album was a reference to something the band’s frontman had said when the band originally broke up, according to ultimate classic rock dot com

Don Henley was categorical, citing the old adage that the band would get back together "when hell freezes over." Speaking to People in 1982, <Glen> Frey remarked: “I just rule out the possibility of putting the Eagles back together for a Lost Youth and Greed tour."

Time, as the old saying goes, can heal all wounds. Four months after appearing in the video for Travis Tritt's cover of "Take It Easy," Henley, Frey, <Don> Felder, Joe Walsh and Timothy B. Schmit agreed to perform live together for the first time in 14 years. A film studio in Burbank, Calif., was booked and over two days in April 1994, the Eagles recorded an MTV special, which resulted in the 11 live tracks found on Hell Freezes Over.
End Quote

2000 Song
Till Hell Freezes Over is a song by Eminem. It was released on Detroit Underground 2000 Volume II featuring various artists.

According to

“Till Hell Freezes Over” was written and recorded in 1998 and it was released on a Detroit Underground mixtape in 2000.

Notably, it is one of the tracks he recorded with Dr. Dre during their first ever studio session together, which took place before Eminem even signed with Aftermath.
End Quote

Here are a few of the lyrics that don’t require me to bleep anything.

That's why my brain is out of order
That's probably why my nights are gettin' colder and my days seem shorter
But as the world turns and I keep growin' older
I'll be livin' this hip-hop till hell freezes over
End Quote

2005 Book
Where Hell Freezes Over: A Story of Amazing Bravery and Survival is a 2005 book about the 1946 crash of the George 1, a US Navy plane that was sent to photograph Antarctica. The author, David Kearns is the son of the pilot of that craft, Bill Kearns. Here’s part of the synopsis from the publisher:

As their plane flew above that desolate continent, the weather threw a "whiteout" - a combination of a slanting sheet of ice on the land and low clouds that make it seem the air ahead is clear when it is not. The blinded plane slammed into a mountainside and exploded. Three men were killed; others were injured, most of them seriously. Their only shelter was the badly damaged fuselage. They had a food supply intended for a few-days trip, and no way to communicate with their rescuers.

For thirteen days the men waited for discovery - or death. Even when they made contact with another seaplane, which led them from the air, they had to struggle, wounded as they were, several miles through blizzard winds, snow, and ice to reach safety.
End Quote

2023 Song
Until Hell Freezes Over is a pop song off the 2023 album Guilty by Loren Grey. Here is the chorus:

I can feel you burning in my soul
I don't wanna fight it anymore
I don't wanna be alone
I hope I get to hold you
Until hell freezes over
End Quote

One more before we wrap up. There is a village in Norway called Hell. And English speakers take some pride in visiting, as noted by Messy Nessy’s Cabinet of Curiosities in an article posted by the namesake on November 2, 2020.

Hell really does freeze over– at least in the middle of rural Norway it does.

On average, for a third of the year, the village of Hell in Norway freezes over, reaching sub-artic temperatures as low as −25 °C (−13 °F) and making it among one of coldest places to live on Earth.

Hell is a sleepy post town with a train station, a grocery store, a grill, a gas station and of course, a retirement home (in case a retirement in Hell sounds like a better idea than the Florida Keys).

The population of Hell is just under 1,500, although the sleepy town gets a considerable amount of visitors who arrive by train hoping to get a snap of themselves under the infamous station sign.

Tourists rarely buy a one-way ticket to Hell (wink wink) and usually just jump straight back on the train, continuing onto their next destination without discovering much of the small town. However, there is an annual music festival called Blues in Hell that attracts a considerable crowd every September.

Perhaps fittingly, there is no church in Hell. This church at a crossroads is found outside the village on the South side of the river.

Who knew Hell would be a sleepy Norwegian town with white picket fences?
End Quote

Alas, in Norwegian, Hell doesn’t mean the fiery eternal dwelling of the dead. According to Messy Nessy:

To the average Norwegian, the word Hell actually means luck, but the town’s name stems from the overhanging cliff caves in the area known as hellir in old Norse.
End Quote

Wrap Up
I’m not one that believes in a literal hell, though I’m also not one who would know. I’ve not been dead yet. I think. Anyway, I like this phrase because much of the english speaking world has the same imagery of hell built by centuries of artist description of a fire and brimstone kind of place. And that sets a wide understanding of what it means to have hell frozen over. And thus, this idiomatic expression has a large audience who get what you mean when you use it. And my favorite turns of phrase are ones that can be shifted in various ways, which usually is easiest done when many people already understand the point. So this one is just fun for me to think about and fun for me to use.

That’s about all we have for today. If you have any thoughts on the show, or pop culture references we should have included,
reach out to us on Patreon, or comment on our website

It’s poll time!

Recently we asked our Patrons, would you rather have a bad haircut or a bad dye job?

67% said they would rather have a bad dye job.

I was bald for most of my adult life. I only started growing it out again about 5 years ago when I made a major change in my professional life. Since I'm okay being bald, a bad haircut can be fixed. A bad dye job might get it on my skin and who knows how long that might last, depending on the dye used. So I was in the minority with preferring a bad haircut.

Initially, I thought I was  with the majority saying bad dye job… but with the caveat that it isn’t a bad bleach job… which will essentially make all of your hair fall out or break off. A bad haircut… unless it is ridiculously too short… is actually much easier and quicker to fix. So I guess if we are just saying your typical didn’t turn out exactly how you were thinking or even learning a little more towards the just awful side… I’ll go with the bad cut most of the time. Or ya know… just make it bad enough that I actually need to shave my head. Because if it’s going to ruin the nearly 3 feet of hair that’s on my head, it better be at least a fun and exciting change!

As a reminder, our silly polls mean absolutely nothing and are not scientifically valid. But Patrons of all levels get to take part. Head over to to take this week’s poll!


Thanks for joining us. We’ll talk to you again next week. Until then remember,

Words belong to their users.

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