Learn English – Etymology of “hell.” Possible link to Norse thethology


The following etymological question has been slumbering in my head for a while, and was woken up by the post on the word "hella."

My Concise Oxford English Dictionary, my faithful vade mecum, tells me that the word "hell" is derived from "hel" or "hell" in Old English, in turn derived from Germanic. Other sources have elaborated that the older Germanic root had a meaning of a thicket or wild, unruly, heath where one might get tangled among the hell of thistles.

I've often wondered, considering the influence of Norse language on English during the Viking settlements, or invasions, if there is any etymological link to the figure Hel (or Hella, or Hela). She was one of the three "strange children" of Loki and the Giantess Angurboda; the other two were Fenris and Jormungand. She also ruled the eponymous realm, Helheim (Hel-Home).

Aside from the possible English/Norse relation, there is, of course, a possible Judeo-Christian relation, with "Hell" and "Sheol," as Hella's realm was an underworld where those who were -not- slain in battle went after death. Of course, all of these elements may very well have been mixed up and juggled about during the centuries.

For all I know, the etymology could have influenced in the other direction, ie., from Old English to Norse. This is why I'm asking! It seems like all of the pieces are there, but I'm not sure how to make them fit.

Best Answer

Watkins' The American Heritage Dictionary of Indo-European Roots
says it comes from the Proto-Indo-European root *kel-¹.

*kel-¹ To cover, conceal, save.

I. O-grade form *kol-.

1a. HELL, from OE hell. 1b. HEL, from ON Hel, the underworld, goddess of death. Both a and b from Gmc haljō, the underworld (< 'concealed place').

2a. HALL, from OIE heall, hall; 2b VALHALLA, from ON höll, hall. Both a and b from Gmc *hallō , covered place, hall.

3. Suffixed form *kol-eyo-. COLEUS, COLEOPTERAN, COLEOPTILE, COLEORHIZA, from Gk koleon, koleos, sheath.

There are also entries II, III, and IV, respectively representing the I-E sources of other words.

  3. Lengthened grade *kēl-. (CONCEAL)