What is the origin of the English word hell?


Concerning the word hell, the Encyclopedia Britannica says: Hell, the abode or state of being of evil spirits or souls that are damned to postmortem punishment. Derived from an Anglo-Saxon word meaning to conceal, or to cover, the term hell originally designed the torrid regions of the underworld, though in some religions the underworld is cold and dark. (The New Encyclopedia Britannica, Vol. 5, 15th edition [Chicago: Encyclopedia Britannica, Inc.], p. 813.)


Britannica's lexicographer (whose job is to define words as they are now used) correctly defined hell as it's used now as the place of punishment after death. However, notice that the word historically meant a cover. Our word helmet comes from the same origin, as it covers the head. Scholars tell us this word was used in the middle ages of a farmer, who would hell or cover his potatoes to preserve them during the winter.


Webster's Unabridged Dictionary says: Hell [ME, fr. OE; akin to OE helan to conceal, OHG hella, hell, to conceal, ON hel] heathen realm of the dead, Goth halja hell, L celare to hide, conceal, Gk kalyptein to cover, conceal, Skt sarana screening, protecting, basic meaning: concealing. (Webster's Third New International Dictionary of the English Language Unabridged, editor Philip Babcock Gove, Ph.D. [Springfield, MA: Merriam-Webster Inc., 1993], p. 1051.)


Webster agrees that the Old English origin of the word means cover. This word had nothing to do with a place of punishment or eternal torment. Those connotations came much later, just in time, we might say, to be corrupted by organized religion into its present form.