The Meaning of Hell or High Water: What It Is and How To Use It

This article will give you all of the information you need on the idiom hell or high water, including its definition, usage, sentence examples, and more!

Your writing, at its best

Compose bold, clear, mistake-free, writing with Grammarly's AI-powered writing assistant

What does the expression hell or high water mean?

The old saying hell or high water means “no matter the difficulty,” according to the English language Dictionary. Merriam-Webster English Dictionary states that the phrase is used to assert that someone will do something, or that something will definitely happen in spite of other events or scenarios that may make it difficult. While the phrase is most commonly spoken or written as “come hell or high water,” but has one less common variant, “in spite of hell or high water.” 

Hell or High Water is also a 2016 film directed by David Mackenzie, and written by Taylor Sheridan, according to IMDb. The film stars Chris Pine, Ben Foster, and Jeff Bridges. In the film, a divorced father and his older brother, and ex-con, come up with a scheme to save their family’s West Texas ranch. 

Hell or High Water is a part of the Frontier trilogy written by Taylor Sheridan. This film is the second installment, following Sicario and preceding Wind River, according to Collider. The films are a thematic trilogy in that each follow a father facing a failure they must come to terms with. They are also all considered modern day WEstern films. 

What is the origin of the phrase hell or high water?

The origin of the expression hell or high water, according to Ginger Software, comes from America. It was first seen printed in May 1882, in the Iowa newspaper The Burlington Weekly Hawk Eye. Phrases states that this is a reprinting from another paper, The Little Rock Gazette. The following quote includes its first printing:

“Since dat time de best ob my friends hab become enemies, an’ strangers hab become friends. De debil had brook loose in many parts ob de country, an’ keepin’ up wid de ole sayin’, we’ve had unrevised hell and high water – an’a mighty heap ob high-water I tell yer.”

World Wide Words states that there is no evidence to the phrase being birthed from nautical origin, and that it had become a widely used phrase by the late 1900s. The settings of many of these early examples come from cattle ranching. In a 1939 book called Trampling Herd: The Story of the Cattle Range in America, the author Paul Wellman first uses the phrase “in spite of hell and high water.” 

What are synonyms to hell or high water?

There are many phrases one can use in place of the term hell or high water. Thesaurus and Word Hippo list many alternatives, mentioned below.

  • Absolutely
  • Definitely
  • Doubtless
  • Exactly
  • Positively
  • Precisely
  • Really
  • Surely
  • Truly
  • Unconditionally
  • Unquestionably
  • Conclusively
  • Decidedly
  • For sure
  • No ifs ands or buts
  • No strings attached
  • Sure as can be
  • Unambiguously
  • Come what may
  • One way or another
  • By any means whatsoever
  • No matter how
  • By hook or by crook
  • Without a doubt
  • Beyond the shadow of a doubt

How can hell or high water be used in a sentence?

The phrase hell or high water can be used in a variety of different situations. It is considered a colloquial idiom, but it is not considered as casual as something like chat or text speak. This phrase is appropriate to use with friends and family, but it might be pushing it to use in a professional email or other formal setting.

In this first example, Caila is at her first college party and feels overwhelmed. She steps outside to call her dad.

Caila: Dad, the people I was at this party with left and I’m like an hour away from campus. I’m really freaked out, and I don’t know anybody here, and I can’t get an Uber. What do I do?

Dad: I’m on my way. Text me the address.

Caila: Really? You don’t have to.

Dad: Of course I do, you’re my daughter.

Caila: Are you sure?

Dad: Honey, come hell or high water, I’ll get you home safe.

Caila: Thank you.

Here, Caila’s dad uses the phrase come hell or high water to tell Caila that no matter the obstacles he may face, he is going to do anything he can to keep her safe. In the next example, Ms. McKinnon talks to her student Jamie about his missing assignments.

Ms. McKinnon: Jamie, you’re missing all of the homework from this semester and have two incomplete projects. I don’t want to fail you but you’re giving me no choice.

Jamie: Is there anything I can do? Any extra credit?

Ms. McKinnon: I am not giving you extra credit. But I will give you credit for these assignments if you complete them.

Jamie: Really? But what about the no late work policy?

Ms. McKinnon: I am willing to make an exception. You’re smart, Jamie, but you need to apply yourself. Get these in by the end of next week.

Jamie: You’re the best, Ms. M. Come hell or high water, I will finish these!

Here, Jamie uses come hell or high water to promise his teacher that he will complete his missing assignments no matter the circumstance.

Overall, the definition of come hell or high water is “no matter the obstacles or difficulty one faces.” This phrase is often seen as “come hell or high water” or “in spite of hell or high water.” This phrase is used to assert that one will complete something, or that something will happen, no matter the circumstances one will face.