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Come hell or high water

Q From Foxxy: I was wondering about the origins of the phrase Come hell or high water.

A It sounds as if this expression for surviving or overcoming nearly insuperable obstacles ought to have a nautical origin, doesn’t it? But there’s no evidence to support that.

It appears in print around the beginning of the twentieth century. The first example I’ve found is from 1901, but there is a substantial set in the books and newspapers later in that decade, showing that it had by then become widely known. The first form that appears is hell and high water; the form you give, which is now standard, comes along several decades later, together with through hell and high water and variations.

The setting of many of the earliest examples strongly point to cattle ranching as the origin, in particular the driving of cattle to railheads in the mid West in the latter part of the nineteenth century. In 1939 Paul Wellman published a book with the title Trampling Herd: the Story of the Cattle Range in America in which he wrote: “ ‘In spite of hell and high water’ is a legacy of the cattle trail when the cowboys drove their horn-spiked masses of longhorns through high water at every river and continuous hell between.”

An article about an old-time cattleman that appeared in the Washington Post in November 1905 supports this: “He prospered in those palmy days until he became the largest cattle owner in the territory and felt able to take his regular blowout in St Louis, until 1884, when, between the alien land law, drought and rustlers, the “hell and high water of the cattlemen,” he ... walked out of the Kansas City stock yards a few hundred thousand dollars worse off and no cattle worth putting an iron on, much less pulling grass by hand to feed.”

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Copyright © Michael Quinion, 1996–. All rights reserved.
Page created 22 Aug. 1998
Last updated: 17 Jul. 2004

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The English language is forever changing. New words appear; old ones fall out of use or alter their meanings. World Wide Words tries to record at least a part of this shifting wordscape by featuring new words, word histories, words in the news, and the curiosities of native English speech.

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Last modified: 17 July 2004.