It is a rhetorical question (one that isn’t necessarily meant to be answered) and generally implies that the speaker is so worn down and frustrated by dealing with previous matters that they regard the latest one as just another form of punishment.
So where did it come from? And in what context do we use it?
Due to the somewhat poetic nature of the phrase—not a lot of questions sound like it—people often (and mistakenly) attribute it to Shakespeare. But while this is one of the few idioms the influential playwright did not coin, there is still a literary story behind it.
Twentieth-century American wit Dorothy Parker, one of the original staff writers at The New Yorker and famous for her dry humor, is acknowledged as the phrase’s real inventor. Sources claim that she would say it whenever the doorbell rang in her apartment. And she technically said, “What fresh hell can this be?”—the exact wording has morphed over time.
For a sense of the phrase’s prevalence since its origin, it was also, more recently but no less famously, used here.
Where to use it
In what daily situations would you use this phrase? Well, whatever causes you consternation, which can include:
- A new project at work
- The arrival of a piece of mail or email
- Someone demanding your attention when you are focused on something else
- The doorbell ringing in your apartment
You get the idea!
There are also such variants as “what kind of fresh hell is this” and “what in the fresh hell is this,” either of which, depending on your mood or what you want to emphasize, you could opt for.