I’ve probably heard or read the word Hell a lot more in the past few days than I would normally. I touched on this briefly before when I wrote about swearing, but it is interesting how we treat the word. It seems logical enough that in countries which were strongly influenced by Christianity, the word might be a little taboo. People understandably tiptoe around the word a little bit, because Hell really is the worst place imaginable. Only the reality when I was young was much different. I thought nothing of uttering a casual What the Hell? when surprised. I knew better than to go full-on WTF in the presence of my parents or teachers, but no-one would ever really bat an eyelid at What the Hell. Even as I was saying it, I never even stopped to consider the fact that the phrase contained the word Hell. It was just part of the whole exclamation. At the same time, I got quite familiar with the word heck, and its associated phrases, from American TV. But, in perhaps another one of my linguistic blindspots (though come one, I was a child), I never connected the two words.
I’m not sure exactly when I realised that heck is a polite form of Hell (I’ve just now realised that I’ve been capitalising Hell, treating it as a proper noun. Which makes sense, as it is a place, but I wonder if that’s insulting to a Christian. Would God be annoyed with me for treating the place with too much respect?) , or what prompted the epiphany. All I remember is thinking that it was so obvious that I should have realised a long time before. It was probably shorter after that that I realised that words like darn, dang, and drat were replacements for damn. Like Hell, it was a pretty commonly-used element of my vocabulary. I could understand why a Christian wouldn’t like to use words like Hell or damn lightly. What struck as me odd though is that the United States, a firmly secular nation in its constitution, featured words in its vocabulary to avoid referring to Hell or damnation, whereas Ireland, which in the 1980s and early 1990s would have been a superficially very Catholic country, didn’t bother with them. Not that we were all going around spouting damn‘s here and Hell‘s* there of course. No-one considered them particularly polite, but no-one also felt the need to substitute them for more polite forms whenever they felt like using them. It would be slightly more impolite to utter Jesus!, Jesus Christ!, or even a resounding Jesus, Mary, and Saint Joseph! in surprise, but it still wouldn’t be too strange to hear people using religious references quite lightly. Still is too, especially with Jesus!
As I got older it began to make more sense. I realised that even if most people professed to be Catholic (and most still do), they were quite liberal about how they actually went about being Catholic. Mass attendance was pretty high in my childhood (though it’s very low now), but it was really more of a social occasion, a chance to chat with the neighbours and have a pint afterwards. People would generally go along with what the local priest advised (and there are sadly too many stories of abuse to show that in the past they wielded disproportionate power and many innocent people suffered at the hands of the Catholic Church in Ireland), but mainly in matters that already aligned with their worldview. In general, people adapted their religion to fit into their life, so you wouldn’t find too many evangelical Christians in Ireland who might actually read the Bible, or make an effort to follow some of the religion’s more specific rules. Maybe that’s particularly Catholic: if you really take all of it completely seriously, that’s a lot of guilt to carry, and a lot of eternal punishment to worry about. Therefore people were never really too concerned about using religious words in a sacrilegious way. Why worry about saying Damn it! when you hit your thumb with a hammer when you’re not thinking too much about eternal damnation?
Still, there are a lot of inconsistencies about the way we use religious language. Why is it rude to say Jesus!, but not Oh my God? Why is What the Devil? so much more polite than What the Hell? He lives there!! I think all these oddities just go to show not only how much religion understandably influences language, but also how complex our relationships with both are, and how we fit words from one context to suit our everyday lives. Sometimes you just have to shout Jesus Christ!
*yes, those apostrophes are deliberate, as they’re used when you’re referring to a word itself in plural form, and not what the word actually means, e.g. That sentence contains three and‘s and four to‘s.