Why We’re Calling Everything a ‘Hellscape’

The word captures our relationship to the daily chaos of recent years.

"Hell-Fantasy (Sibyl and Aeneas in the underworld)" by the 16th- and 17th-century Dutch painter Jacob Isaacsz. van Swanenburg (Prisma / Alamy)

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The tumult of 2020 generated a host of new words to describe our changed circumstances. All of a sudden, everyone remembered the Before Times, essential workers needed to be distinguished from the rest of us, and socializing in a pod wasn’t just for the whales. As things got worse and stayed that way, a new form of speaking about the turmoil of our physical and emotional reality took hold. It became commonplace to refer to America as a “dumpster fire.” The fictional weather event known as a shitstorm raged within our hearts and minds. And, as uncontrollable fires raged in the West and a gas-pipeline rupture opened a burning chasm in the Gulf of Mexico, one word skyrocketed to prominence, one with the intensity to describe the horrors we were bearing witness to: hellscape.

Before exploding into the common vernacular in the 2010s, the term flickered into existence in the 20th century to describe the horrors of the world wars. The first usage I could find is in a poem published in a 1918 edition of the San Francisco newspaper The Argonaut, by the late Lieutenant G. F. Grogan. Grogan uses hellscape to describe the atrocities of trench warfare. The word blips up into usage again in the middle of the century to retroactively categorize the paintings of Jan van Eyck and Hieronymous Bosch, and to visualize World War II and Vietnam. The word itself is a portmanteau coming to us from the world of painting: the Dutch artists of the 1600s began to paint landscapes—extensive views of the natural scenery. Scape—from the Dutch suffix -scap, denoting “condition,” which is a cognate of the English suffix -ship, as in leadership or friendship—soon peeled off as a combinatory form indicating an expansive view of an environment, from a cityscape to a skyscape to a moonscape.

Then, as Trump ascended to the presidency, we began to see everything as a hellscape. Amid such phenomena as the opioid crisis, the specter of marijuana legalization, and the West Coast fires, the word grew from a niche mid-century neologism to a habitual description of the world at large. Why the sudden spike? And why use hellscape and not just hell? The Dutch-painting suffix imbues the infernal with a sense of voyeurism. These dystopian events, for most of us, were experienced not firsthand, but through the mediation of our screens. Hellscape struck a semantic chord with us because it captured our perspectival relationship to the chaos—not immersing us in hell, exactly, but framing it as a backdrop to our daily lives. Hence our Thursday clue: Unpleasant sight to behold.

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