Green’s Dictionary of Slang

what the hell...? phr.

also what the hell’s fire...?
[cits suggest orig. RN use; hell, the phr.]

a general intensifier for a question (cf. where the hell...? phr.; who the hell...? phr.).

‘Oliver Oldschool, Esq.’ Port Folio (Phila.) 22 Nov. 317/2: ‘Gone to Heaven,’ replied Ben, ‘to be sure he [i.e. Nelson] is — what the hell could stop him?’.
H. Macneill Scottish Adventurers II 7: The boatswain, in his usual blunt manner, said, ‘Why, what the hell do you hesitate about ? — you can’t surely think of refusing what you are so well entitled to for your services’.
Naval and Military Mag. Sept. 118: Why, what the hell has broke up your old hulk this way?".
[UK]Marryat Mr Midshipman Easy II 55: What the hell are you making such a howling about?
[UK]R.S. Surtees Jorrocks Jaunts (1874) 94: ‘I’m not a betting man.’ ‘Then, wot the ’ell business have you at Newmarket?’.
[UK](con. 1840s–50s) H. Mayhew London Labour and London Poor I 173/1: ‘What the b--- h-ll do I care how she lives,’ says the woman.
[US]‘Artemus Ward’ ‘A Mayoralty Election’ 🌐 What the h—l yer tryin’ to fool the man for?
[UK]‘Walter’ My Secret Life (1966) IV 691: Why the damned fool has fainted [...] what the hell’s the matter with her?
[US]F.P. Dunne in Schaaf Mr. Dooley’s Chicago (1977) 332: But what th’ ’ell am I doin’ gassin’ away about goats.
[Aus]H. Lawson ‘The Bush Fire’ in Roderick (1972) 433: ‘Do your call yourself an Englishman?’ [...] ‘What the hell do you call yourself?’.
[US]H.V. O’Brien Diary 7 Mar. in Wine, Women and War (1926) 42: What the holy hell did we come to this for?
[Aus]C.J. Dennis ‘Half A Man’ in Chisholm (1951) 104: ’e stands an’ looks at me: / ‘Now, wot the ’ell’s got into you?’ sez ’e.
[Ire]Joyce Ulysses 199: What the hell are you driving at? I know. Shut up.
[US](con. 1860s) R. Bradford Kingdom Coming 148: Well, what in hell’s fire you waitin’ on?
[UK]Wodehouse Right Ho, Jeeves 152: What the hell did you mean by telling her that I used to be covered with ink when I was a kid?
[US]Mezzrow & Wolfe Really the Blues 97: What the hell’s going on in there?
[US]‘F. Bonnamy’ Blood and Thirsty (1952) 239: What the sweet hell goes on here?
[US]J. Jones From Here to Eternity (1998) 696: Say, what the hell’s wrong with you?
[US]C. Cooper Jr Syndicate (1998) 3: I know where the hell I am and who the hell I’m supposed to be. Now tell me what the hell is going on.
[UK]G. Lambert Inside Daisy Clover (1966) 223: What the hell’s so special about that?
[US]E. Tidyman Shaft 62: What the hell did he pick him up for, anyway?
[UK](con. 1961) J. Rosenthal Spend, Spend, Spend Scene 11: What the hell’s that for???
[UK]J. Sullivan ‘The Russians are Coming’ Only Fools and Horses [TV script] Look if this is true Rodney what the hell are we doing trying to survive?
[US]S. Morgan Homeboy 59: I asked what the hell was going on.
[US](con. 1960s) G. Washington Blood Brothers 68: What the hell’s fire was that all about?
[US]T. Udo Vatican Bloodbath 23: WHAT THE HELL ARE YE DOIN’ THERE?