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The meaning and origin of the expression: Hell's half acre

Hell's half acre

What's the meaning of the phrase 'Hell's half acre'?

'Hell's half acre' is an American expression and is used with several different meanings:

- All over the place; in all directions. For example if someone is said to be all over Hell's half acre they would be rushing from one place to another. The phrase is often used in relation to someone searching here, there and everywhere.

- A wild and desolate locality.

- The 'red-light' district of town.

What's the origin of the phrase 'Hell's half acre'?

The phrase 'Hell's half acre' - meaning and origin.There are several places in the USA with the name 'Hell's half acre'.

Some of the best known of the numerous Hell's half acres are:

- A lava flow about 15 miles west of Idaho Falls, Idaho.
- A rocky escarpment west of Casper, Wyoming.
- The Midway Geyser Basin in Yellowstone National Park.

The common thread amongst all of the Hell's half acre sites is that they are all demanding environments for people to live, or even to visit.

It seems intuitive to come to the conclusion that the name was chosen because the lava flows, crevasses and geysers at these places were suggestive of what people imagined Hell to be like.

That isn't how the name was first used though. The first use of the expression Hell's half acre that I can find is as the name of a district in Augusta, Georgia. The Adams Sentinel newspaper, May 1835, described a fire in Augusta:

The entire destruction by fire of part of Augusta called "Hell's Half Acre" and rather profanely adds, "it was really amusing to hear them, the people, running the streets, and and hallowing, all Hell's a fire."

The phrase 'Hell's half acre' - meaning and origin.It appears that the district was given that name, not because of geographical features but because of another hellish association - it was the town's red-light district.

A similar district existed in Forth Worth and the area today has a plaque with this descriptive text:

Hell's Half Acre

A notorious red light district known as Hell's Half Acre developed in this section of Forth Worth after the arrival of the Texas and Pacific Railway in 1876 launched a local economic boom... A large number of saloons, dance halls, gambling houses, and bordellos opened.

A local newspaper later described the area as "A den of sin and refuge for criminals."

Why the phrase 'running all over Hell's half acre' came to mean 'busily rushing around' isn't clear.

See more hellish phrases:
Going to Hell in a handcart
Hell hath no fury like a woman scorned
Hell and high water

Gary Martin - the author of the website.

By Gary Martin

Gary Martin is a writer and researcher on the origins of phrases and the creator of the Phrase Finder website. Over the past 26 years more than 700 million of his pages have been downloaded by readers. He is one of the most popular and trusted sources of information on phrases and idioms.

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