Come Hell or High Water (Origin)

by Craig Shrives

What Is the Origin of the Saying "Come Hell or High Water"?

The term "come hell or high water" means regardless of the obstacles.
Come Hell or High Water (Origin)

Examples of Use:

  • Come hell or high water, I will be at your wedding.
  • It's a nasty injury, but – come hell or high water – he will be available for the final in August.
  • Anne will tell the CEO what she thinks about his proposal. Trust me. Come hell or high water, she will find a way to talk to him.
This phrase originates from the 1830s. It is probable that the original was "hell and high water," which is an alliterative term (words that start with the same consonant sound) that refers to two serious obstacles. Many of our common sayings are alliterative, and it is highly likely that the alliteration has kept this saying alive in our language, particularly as many will now see hell and high water as increasingly irrelevant concepts.

While there are few confirmed examples of "hell and high water" or "come hell or high water" from the 1830s, there is a spike of usage in the 1830s shown on Google's Ngram viewer (which scans millions of books over the last two centuries). It is also noteworthy that "hell and high water" was described as an "old saying" in 1882:
  • De debil had brook loose in many parts ob de country, an' keepin' up wid de ole sayin', we've had unrevised hell and high water - an'a mighty heap ob high-water I tell yer."
  • (Dated May 1882, this is from "The Burlington Weekly Hawk Eye." It translates as "The devil had broke loose in many parts of the country and keeping up with the old saying, we've had unrevised hell and high water, and a mighty heap of high water, I tell you.")

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See Also

What are idioms? What is figurative language? A list of common grammar errors A list of easily confused words A list of sayings and proverbs

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