On August 27 of last year, a poster on the main site asked "What does the idiom “funny as hell” mean?" Four days later, the question was closed for a familiar reason:

Please include the research you’ve done, or consider if your question suits our English Language Learners site better. Questions that can be answered using commonly-available references are off-topic.

As currently worded, the "funny as hell" question reads as follows:

I really don't understand this idiom, hell is supposed to be a horrible place. I understand the saying which is present in dictionaries “hot as hell”, but I could not find “funny as hell” in any online reference.

An editor added the sentence "I could not find 'funny as hell' in any online reference" on November 28, 2018, presumably in hopes of signaling to potential close voters that an explanation of the exact phrase "funny as hell" (the particular phrase that the poster was interested in) was not easy to find online.

I acknowledge that some EL&U participants believe that editing a question to help it avoid closure for lack of research constitutes cheating, defacement of the original post, vandalism, outrageous presumptuousness, insupportable interference with a poster's (1) right to ask questions that contain close-worthy flaws and (2) status as the only person with the necessary insight to resuscitate them, etc. This has, I believe, always been a minority view at EL&U—and it seems to be fundamentally at odds with any rationale that might explain the site's decision to let people other than the poster edit a poster's question—but nevertheless it persists.

In any event, the question was closed on August 31, 2018, for the "Please include the research you've done..." reason, notwithstanding the question's containing the "could not find 'funny as hell' in any online reference" showing of research.

Despite its closure, the question has attracted (to this point) 7,156 page views in just 8½ months. Evidently, the poster isn't the only person wandering the internet who wonders why people say "funny as hell." The number of views suggests that the question is of broad interest to site visitors. It is also clearly a question about English usage. And finally, it involves a more subtle issue than the close voters may have realized—namely, that "[blank] as hell" is a surprisingly slippery construction.

The highest-voted answer points out that "as hell" frequently serves as an intensifier in situations where, objectively, hell makes no sense as a simile for the thing being intensified—"happy as hell," say, or "devout as hell." But in some cases, the expression does work as a simile: "hot as hell," for example, is perfectly coherent as a simile (as the OP points out); and readers of Dante could make a case for "cold as hell" as a simile, too. Likewise, "cruel as hell," "treacherous as hell," "murky as hell," "painful as hell" (or "hurts like hell"), etc., are far from irrational as straight similes.

It is in this light, I think, that we should view the poster's curiosity about why "funny as hell" works in English even though it obviously fails as a coherent simile. I think it's a good question of broad interest, and I ask that site participants who have the power to vote on such questions consider voting to reopen it.

  • "Despite its closure, the question has attracted (to this point) 7,156 page views in just 8½ months" I don't remember seeing the question, but my educated guess is that the Q entered the HNQ list. This would explain the 60 upvotes for the top answer, and the 7,000 visits. If I were a betting woman, Id say the question probably attracted 4,000-5,000 visits during its stay in the HNQ. I don't think the number cited is actually a reflection of outside/internet interest. – Mari-Lou A May 11 '19 at 6:37
  • Ha! I left a comment under the OP, so I did see it and it was interesting enough to merit a comment. – Mari-Lou A May 11 '19 at 6:55
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    The point of the closure is that the OP has not shown any evidence of research beyond the "I couldn't find anything" statement. We don't know what he searched for [could be the wrong thing] or where [could be the wrong places] (but it also includes how many resources). We even have questions on research and voting for lack of it. – Andrew Leach May 11 '19 at 7:43
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    @Andrew Leach: Actually, the poster/editor does specify the term that he or she looked for ("I could not find 'funny as hell'") and where ("in [multiple] online reference[s]"). If EL&U's position is that users who can't find any information relevant to their question on their own should specify the sources they checked, perhaps it should replace the vaguely worded "Please show the research you've done") with a clear threshold requirement. For example: "If you can't find any information about a specific term, please identify at least three references you checked that were not helpful." – Sven Yargs May 11 '19 at 17:23
  • Possibly, although there is only a limited amount of space, and it does say "Please show the research you've done" and not "Please show the results of the research you've done." – Andrew Leach May 11 '19 at 17:24
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    Discussions of the "show research" close reason tend to be skewed by the fiction that the requirement exists to help answerers avoid replicating work that the question asker has already done. In fact, it exists (and is hugely popular) because it gives close voters an extremely convenient way to reject a question without having to assess the question's inherent value and interest. The point is to get rid of gallons and gallons of bathwater as quickly as possible—and if babies occasionally get tossed out in the course of the operation (and they do), that's really the babies' parents' fault. – Sven Yargs May 11 '19 at 17:42
  • I would argue that "... as hell" always serves as an intensifier, despite occasional congruences with supposed properties of the "actual" (yet still mythological) hell. The intensifier may have originated with heat, as the logical concomitant of flames of perdition, yet even then it was an intensifier, which may be why it could be (and was) translated to other adjectives. – Robusto May 21 '19 at 15:22
  • @Robusto: You may be right about usage today, given the language's current bias toward such usage. But it seems very possible—and perhaps probable—that "as X as hell" began in English as a simile and only later acquired its current predominant role as a pure intensifier. ... – Sven Yargs May 22 '19 at 6:12
  • Here are the first occurrences of various "as X as hell" phrases that Ngram found when I asked it to find matches for "as * as hell" from the period 1550–1750: "as dark as hell" (1602); "as low as hell" (1612); "as false as hell" (1619); "as hot as hell" (1622); "as wild as hell" (1630); "as deep as hell" (1643), "as far as hell" (1671); "as black as hell" (1701); "as wide as hell" (1710); and "as proud as hell" (1713). All of these—even "as proud as hell, " which seems to be alluding to Satan’s pride going before the Fall—seem to function primarily as similes. ... – Sven Yargs May 22 '19 at 6:12
  • The earliest of these instances is from Twelfth Night (1602), where Shakespeare has Malvolio say this: "I say this House is a dark as ignorance, though ignorance were dark as hell ; and I say there was never man thus abus'd, I am no more mad than you are, make the trial of it any constant question." It seems clear to me thatShakespeare is indeed using the expression as a simile. ... – Sven Yargs May 22 '19 at 6:12
  • Strikingly, instances of “as X as hell” used unmistakably as an intensifier come much later: "as mad as hell" (1830), "as sure as hell” (1872, evidently a shortening of "as sure as hell is hell" or William Law’s "as sure as hell is a place of fiery wrath and darkness" [1740]), "as angry as hell" (1895), "as guilty as hell" (1896), "as crazy as hell" (1905), "as hungry as hell" (1911), "as drunk as hell” (1913), "as uncomfortable as hell" (1921), "as thirsty as hell" (1922), and "as worried as hell" (1943). ... – Sven Yargs May 22 '19 at 6:13
  • I should note that I looked for phrases that reached their completion with “hell,” not phrases that embedded “as X as hell” within some longer expression, such as Milton’s "as lovely as Hell is terrible" (1667) or Shakespeare’s “as big as hell can hold” (1611). I should also note that I didn't search Early English Books Online for early examples, which I certainly would have done if this were intended to be a serious answer to the question of whether "as X as hell" originated as a simile or as an intensifier. – Sven Yargs May 22 '19 at 6:13
  • @SvenYargs: I think even as a "genuine" simile it was hyperbolic, and that's why I said it was always an intensifier. If a simile amplifies the degree of comparison, isn't that intensification? "He's going on a diet because he's getting as big as an elephant." Nobody was ever that fat, and no day was ever as hot as hell purported to be. – Robusto May 22 '19 at 12:51
  • Note: Four months later, the question has drawn an additional 2,000 (exactly!) page views, strong evidence of continuing interest in the question. Thanks, everyone, for reopening this useful question. – Sven Yargs Sep 24 '19 at 19:05

I won't deny that the matter of the phrase is without interest. I commented on the nonsense of the term cold as hell in chat recently, and Robusto linked me to his answer. Naturally, I knew it was being used as an intensifier but hell is hot.

I am opposed to editing questions to misrepresent research, but less so for most of the reasons you mention, and moreso because I fear the nature of the question being misrepresented in the edit. I suppose you could say that I think presumptuousness is an accurate representation of the problem, but it is not even that the questioner is the only person who has the insight to fix problems with a post. I may be satisfied if an editor adding research explained to us how the edit clarifies the meaning of the post, rather than changing it, pursuant to general S.E. editing guidelines. Stack Exchange is not quite Wikipedia, and one of the things that makes it different is that it is designed to have a system of peer review so that constructively crafted competing ideologies regarding the specific inquiry can be peer reviewed. As such it also offers a greater degree of post ownership assigned to their original posters post owners is a very critical component of that, so we should take respectful caution in terms of how a question is represented.

One of the problems with this particular question is that because of the extremely simple form, Robusto's answer is a perfectly reasonable response, and if this question is of deeper than face value, then any much more insightful answer would have to overcome the burden of 60 votes.

Changing the how a question is interpreted can bias the given answers and the voting patterns while risking answer acceptance which is at odds with the body of the post. It also kind of damages our ability to service genuine questions because we are really replacing them with our own somewhat different question.

What I principally object to is how adding research can change the subject-matter of a question. I feel like changing subject matter is a job better handled by a newer better question, asked by somebody who knows what inspired them to ask in the first place. An appropriately asked question may also draw in more people.

If we are going to open questions because they are genuinely of greater interest, then I would prefer it be done without need of falsified research which does practically nothing except give people a mistaken impression of what the questioner really wanted to know.

Additionally, I d not believe it is not at odds with any reason we might have for being allowed to edit other people's posts. We expect our website to be used as a formal reference work, and it has to be presentable as such. Making edits to improve readability or bring posts into compliance with academic standards by doing things like adding attribution are perfectly valid reasons to edit our post. Also, aside from avoiding the aforementioned pitfalls, asking new questions helps to better index our website because the direct inquiry may exist.

And since it's bound to come up, the editing privilege doesn't mean we are absolved from editing restrictions. It comes because by the time we make enough contributions to earn it, we are expected to know how the website is supposed to work well enough to be trusted to honor them. That's probably why we're given a link to them to them in the inbox when we earn the privilege. We are a stack exchange subdomain, so their rules are our rules too.

Also, none of this is to be construed to mean that the questioner is the only person who can make edits to questions generally, even if some added research is required. Sometimes clarifying a question requires an interpretive call. However, those edits should have some basis in the original form of the question which are more considerably more probable to be correct than other interpretations. However, if we have no existing reason to believe that a certain interpretation is probable, that's when a question should remain closed. In this particular case the question does raise a point of concern that suggests some basic understanding of the meaning.

Not only does asking a new question bypass the aforementioned problems, but it also improves the website's indexing. So before we reopen that question, I also want to ask something: Are we really interested in the same subject as the questioner and think we can do better than existing resources, or is there a better question we could ask that more accurately represents what we really want to know? Is it really a matter of meaning as the question presently asked suggest, or moreso one of phrase history and derivation. We have a procedure for asking near-duplicate questions which involves linking to the old one and explaining the difference, so if we could use that, it might be preferable

Also, that is a question of genuine interest. I think most of us are familiar with the phrase, but if it is merely an intensifier or if there's a particular lingual theme here that might merit some addressing. Sometimes funniness is associated with morbid suffering. Sometimes things are considered so funny that it hurts, or people can supposedly die laughing.

As for the difficulty of answering that particular question, I'm kind of split on that one in this case. The phrase itself isn't very well documented, but that is probably because standard reference works have chosen to address the broader phonomena instead. The Free Dictionary by Farlex does have an as hell entry, and use of an intensifier is noted in standard dictionary resources.

It should probably be noted that for the purposes of voting, I am not endorsing a particular plan of action in this specific case. Instead, I simply mean to address the talking points brought up, since meta is more permissive of discussion than the main website.

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    I don't think Sven needs such an in-depth explanation on the workings and ethos of SE... you are not writing to a newcomer but to someone who has 116k rep. – Mari-Lou A May 11 '19 at 6:15
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    Two important points that have been missed; the question probably appeared on the HNQ which would account for the high number of votes and visits. And finally, only two users had cast their vote to close, it was a mod who cast the binding vote. – Mari-Lou A May 11 '19 at 6:25
  • @Mari-LouA I live by the philosophy that it never hurts to be too thorough and it is better to be too thorough than not thorough enough, and that we could all stand to take the time to think things through with due consideration. I am not going to pretend as if I am not disappointed to see signs that other people may think otherwise, but such is life, I suppose. – Tonepoet May 14 '19 at 6:54
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    Always keep in mind who your readers are when writing commentary and/or answers. – Mari-Lou A May 14 '19 at 7:25
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    @Mari-LouA - I've always thought that answers to questions are not solely for OP, but for entire community, including anyone who might have a similar question down the road. – J.R. May 16 '19 at 13:57
  • What's wrong with "cold as hell"? Dante's ninth circle is a lake of ice in which traitors are frozen up to their faces. – Gareth Rees May 21 '19 at 13:30
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    @GarethRees While I can't deny the fame and influence of the work, I think the usual English idea of a biblical hell is much simpler than how it is described in the Dante's Inferno, which is an Italian work. The word inferno itself is often associated with heat, and hell is usually thought of as a place of fire and brimstone. The idea of it ever being cold there is so unfathomable that we even say "when hell freezes over" to mean never.. – Tonepoet May 21 '19 at 14:04

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