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What Does "All Hell Broke Loose" Mean?

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  • Written By: Mark Wollacott
  • Edited By: Lauren Fritsky
  • Last Modified Date: 08 November 2016
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The term “all hell broke loose” means a situation suddenly descended into total chaos and confusion. It is a past tense sentence indicating the event happened in the near or distant past. Events tend to be relatively peaceful before something triggers the chaos. The phrase is idiomatic because the meaning cannot be garnered from a direct translation of its constituent words.

“All hell broke loose” is derived from both Christian and pre-Christian religions across Europe. Many pagan or polytheistic religions including Roman, Greek and Anglo-Nordic had places where there were bad people and monsters. Hell is directly related to the Anglo-Norse version of Hell and the Goddess, Hel, who ruled over it. The word is linguistically consistent over all Germanic languages from Frisian to Gothic.

The idea of hell breaking loose developed under Christianity, but had its origins in the Anglo-Nordic religion. Part of the mythology has Hell breaking open as part of Ragnarok, the apocalypse of the Gods and the reshaping of the world. Christianity added to the idea with demons and the Devil, but did not create it. In both mythologies, hell literally broke open and its contents poured onto Earth, causing chaos and destruction.

It is used as a term of recollection and most often appears when somebody is describing events. This can either be firsthand experience or secondhand reporting. “All hell broke loose” is usually preceded by ‘then’ to demonstrate a continuation of events in the narration.

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Coup d’états often give rise to use of the term, too. It is used to indicate the breakdown of law and order within a society. It has been used, for example, in countries such as Iraq in 2003, in Thailand during political riots and in Libya in 2011. As one government falls, there is a vacuum until the new one asserts its power, and this allows chaos to develop as people take advantage.

Several television shows and documentaries have used “all hell broke loose” as a title. In 1995, Israeli director Amir Feldman produced a documentary about the lives of two victims of a suicide attack in his country. Television show “Charmed” also used it as an episode title. The second season of “Supernatural” concluded with a two-part episode with the same title where hell literally broke loose on Earth.

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croydon
Post 3

@KoiwiGal - I guess it depends on whether you think chaos is ultimately a bad thing in and of itself. Some people do think it is and they would consider a bunch of noisy children to be a negative experience.

It probably also depends on how much someone swears or responds to swearwords. To some people, the word "hell" should only be used literally, and using it any other way would be unthinkable. To others, they sprinkle it into their daily vocabulary and wouldn't blink an eye at its use in a cliche.

KoiwiGal
Post 2

@browncoat - Saying that hell broke loose just doesn't have the implication of real hell to me though. It doesn't even need to be negative, necessarily. I would use it to describe a bunch of kids getting rowdy, or a really loud noise or something unexpected, rather than actual hell on earth.

I also think it's kind of lazy as a literary cliche, since it has been used so often. They did an experiment once where people were hooked up to brain scanners while they were reading and cliches tended to get very little response compared with fresher descriptions.

browncoat
Post 1

That episode of Supernatural was pretty cool. They visit the theme of all hell breaking loose on earth fairly often though, especially once they get deep into the Angels vs. Demons storylines. I watch the series with my mother and I think it makes her quite nervous sometimes, as she is fairly religious and finds the idea of demons walking among us to be persuasive.

I think of it as no more than another kind of fairy-tale, but I do think that it has some good moral themes as well.

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