Most people regard the phrase “go to Halifax” as a polite euphemism, probably American, for the blunter request, go to hell! But why Halifax?
The explanation is interesting, for it goes back four centuries at least, to the manufacturing town of Halifax in northern England.
History doesn’t tell us whether there were more rogues and thieves in and about Halifax than in other parts of England, but in the sixteenth century the people of that town had become so harassed by thievery that they had instituted what became known as “Halifax Law.”
This provided “that whosoever doth commit any felony, and is taken with the same, or confess the fact upon examination, if it be valued by four constables to amount to the sum of thirteen-pence halfpenny, he is forthwith beheaded upon one of the next market days.” The instrument used for the beheading was an early form of guillotine, one that served as a model for the later Scottish “maiden.”
As the seaport town of Hull, also in Yorkshire, had a reputation for being just as summary in meting out punishment to undesirable characters, these two towns became a byword among thieves as places to be avoided.
They gave rise to the lines in the so-called Beggar’s Litany, “From Hell, Hull, and Halifax, good Lord deliver us,” for the three places of punishment were almost equally dreaded.
Thus, in fact, our impolite order is not so much a euphemism for “go to hell,” as a substitute with equal force.