Wednesday, November 11, 2009

What In The Sam Hill?

For my whole life, I have heard people use the phrase, "Sam Hill." For example, "What in the Sam Hill is going on here?"

I never thought much about it and just thought it was a cute little saying.

However, I happened to say that phrase today and my husband/pastor gave me a strange look and said, "What did you say?"

I replied, "I just said, 'What in the Sam Hill happened'"?

He said, "Well, you do know, don't you, that that phrase is actually, 'Sam Hell?'"

I was befuddled. Not to mention bamboozled.


I had never heard of such a ridiculous thing. Of course, it was Sam Hill. Whoever heard of it being "Sam Hell?"

Well, my dear hubby found the following explanation from a column at the
Word Detective website; I thought it would pass it along to you.


Dear Word Detective:

I was recently talking with a friend of mine who, when surprised, exclaimed, "What in Sam Hell was that?" My initial reaction was to ask whether his mama hadn't told him not to swear like a prospector, but since then,this expression has haunted my brain in the wee hours of the morning. Where in Sam Hell did the phrase "Sam Hell" come from? And why Sam, rather than George or Larry or even Betsey? -- Elizabeth, via the Internet.



Oh what a tangled web we weave, when euphemisms we incorrectly perceive.

The phrase your friend was grappling for in his moment of excitement is not "What in Sam Hell," but "What in Sam Hill" or "What in the Sam Hill." In fact, the whole point of the phrase is that it does not involve the word "hell."

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.

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.

So there you have it.

I just can't believe that I've lived forty-seven years and just discovered this whole story today!

What about you? Have you heard (or used) the phrase, "What in the Sam Hill?" Did you know its origin?

There's never a dull moment in the life of a word lover!



33 Had Something To Say (Just click here!):

Anonymous said...

I thought it was Sam Hell too so I stand corrected.

So, how do you explain to a 13 year old why the word "hell" is a swear word? I just told her it always was and I'm not in charge of the list of words that are swear words and neither is she!

Thanks for the info!

Hugs!
Connie

Angie said...

In response to Connie...I had to explain "hell" as a swear word to my 9 year old. She asked me why "hell" is a bad word, if it's just a place that people without Jesus in their hearts go....I told her, it's not that "hell" itself is a swear word, it's all in how you use it. I explained that it's okay to talk about hell when you are witnessing to someone and expressing concern that you don't want them to end up there. I mentioned how I often use the phrase "What in the world is going on in here?" when she and her sisters are fighting, playing, etc. and told her some people would substitute the word "Hell" and that would make it a swear word. She seemed to understand my logic. :)

SuziQCat said...

Well, I've heard of the phrase before, and used it on occasion, but I didn't know of it's origin. I also didn't know what word 'sam hill' was replacing! Thanks for the update, and praying that the house will meet the needs of the lookers!

MaryH said...

I understand frantic cleaning - frantically praying here for this person(s) to be THE ONE(S)!!! It is all in place, this is the last piece!

Always have heard my relatives, including my dad, use the phrase "what in the Sam HILL," never hell. Never knew what it meant but I too thought it a catchy string of words. Now I know.

I also understand the longing to remain where all the memories are - but the memories are in your heart and soul and mind - they will travel with you. Becky, you are also so lucky to have documented so much of your life in that wonderful home. Make a collage of the photos to hang in your new house.

Come on, Becky's Dad....get those house buyers to buy!

Love Being a Nonny said...

I've always used the term *Sam Hill*. Thought everyone did!:)

Let us know about the house showing!

lifebythecreek said...

I'm in the "hill" vs. "hell" crowd, too, always having heard it used (and probably even used it) as "Sam Hill". But I've also heard "What in the dickens" a lot, too, so I think I kind of figured that Sam Hill and Dickens were both nice replacements for hell.
I'm also with Angie on the explanation of hell as a curse word vs. a noun. (and I do think that "curse word" is more accurately descriptive than "bad word", simply because in many cases, you ARE cursing either someone or something). And then, there's using God's name in vain; you take the holy and make it profane. Ah, these are the conversations that you really don't think about when your child is a year old and you're trying to get them to talk.....

Anonymous said...

Ladies,

Thanks for the help on the use of the word "hell." Her mind works way differently than ours so I'll keep trying and see if what you guys said, sinks in better.

What makes this so funny, her first sentence at age 10 months was "What the hell?" after our alarm went off. Daddy had to take the blame for that one.

Have a great day!

Hugs,
Connie F-G

the inadvertent farmer said...

I thought Sam Hill. You now have my contemplating all my expressions...not sure that is a good thing, lol!

Great post...good luck with your house!

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