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What Does It Mean to Have No "Hope in Hell"?

A. Leverkuhn
A. Leverkuhn

The English usage of “no hope in hell” refers to a slim or non-existent chance of something happening. English speakers refer to something having “no hope in hell” as one of several alternative idiomatic phrases. The use of the word “hell” is a peculiar way to talk about chance that is most likely related to the assumedly harsh conditions of a “hellish” environment.

The phrase “no hope in hell” is related to another longer idiomatic phrase that illustrates some possible reasons for using the imagery of hell in relation to chances for survival. The phrase, “a snowball’s chance in hell,” is popular in American and English slang. For example, an English speaker might say a proposal or plan “doesn’t have a snowball’s chance in hell,” which means the speaker feels the plan will never survive to implementation. Here, it is the particularly hot temperatures associated with hell that provides the background for the metaphorical phrasing. Specifically, “a snowball’s chance in hell” is slim to none, since the high temperatures as most people imagine them would quickly melt the snowball.

Dante's "Inferno" uses a form of the phrase, "no hope in hell."
Dante's "Inferno" uses a form of the phrase, "no hope in hell."

Some English speakers who do not want to use this kind of metaphorical language will say the same thing much more efficiently by saying that something has “no chance.” The use of “no hope in hell” or “a snowball’s chance in hell” is usually associated with a somewhat emotional opinion on something. It’s a colorful idiom that is usually used with a certain amount of oratorical passion.

The use of the idiom “no chance in hell” or “no hope in hell” does have some historic and literary basis. For example, Dante’s “Inferno” includes a written motto that stands over the gates to hell that reads Lasciate ogne speranza, voi ch’intrate. This translates in English to “Abandon all hope, ye who enter here.” This phrase is another popular part of the English lexicon, and provides a foundation for the more idiomatic uses of the word “hell.”

Along with all of the above phrases, English speakers can also say that something has “no chance at all,” where the use of “at all” provides the same emphasis that would be represented by using the word “hell.” Alternately, those substituting a more earthly phrase for a highly metaphorical, one could say there’s “not a chance in the world” or “no chance on earth” for something.

Discussion Comments


I usually hear the expression "snowball's chance in Hell" whenever the situation at hand is pretty much hopeless. I have heard a few commentators on TV talk shows say we have no hope in Hell of getting out of a military conflict or an economic crisis, however.


I've heard other expressions, too, like "I hope they sell beer in Hell" or "People in Hell want ice water, and all they're getting is steam". It seems like the concept of an eternal place of damnation really brings home the point of the first part of the expression. You can't substitute the word "Hell" with too many other locations. Hell is the ultimate in bad geography.

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    • Dante's "Inferno" uses a form of the phrase, "no hope in hell."
      By: Malgorzata Kistryn
      Dante's "Inferno" uses a form of the phrase, "no hope in hell."