What the Sam Hill Is Going On Around Here?

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June 21, 2014

I wish this were still on the original document, as I'd love to know the context...

The origins of the expression "like Sam Hill" or "What the Sam Hill?" are unclear. The best explanation I've seen posited:


The explanation of "Sam Hill" is actually pretty simple -- it's an early 19th century American euphemism for "hell" used as an oath. Perhaps due to our Puritan ancestry, Americans have always been especially creative when it comes to inventing linguistic detours around oaths and blasphemies. "Heck," "drat," "darn," "gosh," "jiminy," "gee-whiz" and "goldarn," for example, all started out as euphemisms for exclamations of surprise or rage no newspaper would print and no proper dinner table conversation would tolerate. To digress a bit, I have always wondered whether Walt Disney knew, when he christened his little cartoon creation "Jiminy Cricket," that the name was a rather transparent euphemism for the blasphemous oath "Jesus Christ."

Because the euphemism "Sam Hill" is also a perfectly good real name, many people assume that the phrase must have originally referred to a real person. A reader wrote me several years ago, wondering if he might have uncovered the "original" Sam Hill in the person of Samuel Hill (1857--1931), a lawyer, financier and railroad magnate known in the Northwest U.S. as "the Father of Good Roads." After doing a little checking, however, I can say with certainty that while Mr. Hill may have been famous for many things, he was not the source of this phrase. In fact, "What in the Sam Hill" was in widespread use by 1839, quite a few years before this particular Sam Hill was born.

I'm wondering if the cancel below was a protest against the tax being paid. We'll never know...

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