Tuesday, January 1, 2013

What in the Sam Hill?

Happy New Year! No, my title is not expressing consternation, or not any more than I usually feel. Rather, we're going back to the comment thread of my recent blog post on tomfoolery, where we contemplated the use of common, simple male names in expressions. Sam Hill appeared in due course, and as usual, I really have no idea where the above expression comes from. Was there a Sam Hill? Was there an actual hill referred to? Is it a euphemism to swear more politely? As I think about it, I'm guessing this is the most likely, probably for 'what in the hell?'

But it still doesn't explain the Sam...


This is great stuff, folks. Predictably, no one knows exactly how this expression started. But it has some wonderful theories going. You can cut to the chase and go read the Wikipedia article, but I'll share one or two here for the fun of it. It is indeed a minced oath, American, from around the 1830s. Surprisingly, the one attested to be most likely to be accurate in terms of origin is one about Abraham Lincoln. In this version, Lincoln, pre-presidency, worked for a guy named Sam Hill, who reportedly threw Lincoln's manuscript arguing against the divinity of the Bible into the fire because he thought it would hurt Lincoln's chances when running for office. Lincoln is said to have exclaimed "What in the Sam Hill are you doing?"

To me, though, this kind of quick witted quipping seems more likely to have come to Lincoln's mind because the phrase already had some kind of currency.

H. L. Mencken thought that Sam was short for Samiel, the name for the devil in an opera by Carl Maria von Weber called Der Freisch├╝tz, which was performed in New York in 1825. This seems more likely a reference for Lincoln to me than the name of the even earlier "Sam. Hill", who represented his constituency from Guilford, Connecticut between 1727 and 1752. I think a state representative in Connecticut before the Union might be a bit obscure, even for Lincoln. I do think he might have heard of the opera...

Der Freisch├╝tz, though not from 1825



  1. Loved this, and thank you, and happy new year!!

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  3. I wonder if Hill's similarity to hell facilitated its acceptance as a minced oath. A college roommate and I invented a minced oath of our own based on our common love for a name one of us had encountered somewhere, maybe in a New York Times wedding announcement, and the coinage spread among our circle of friends.

    That's why we'd say, "What the Gandalfo di Blasi are you talking about?" or, asked my name by the receptionist at the law firm where one of our group worked, I'd say, "Just tell him Gandalfo di Blasi is here."

  4. You make a good case for Lincoln being the source, though I'm not entirely convinced.

    I like that Gandalfo di Blasi coinage. I was very amused today when I was helping my friend look for an acupuncturist and discovered that there is a practitioner by the name of Mr.Django Saax Barbato.

  5. Given the particular specialty that Mr. Barbato practices and the town in which I presume he practices it, I am guessing that is not his real name. If anyone ever introduces himself to me by that name, I'll extend my hand and say, "Gandalfo di Blasi. Glad to meet you."

  6. I have a feeling that it is actually his name. The Barbato at any rate is real. And of course my amusement has nothing to do with his skills. I assume he is good since I was looking through best acupuncturist lists at the time of coming across him.

  7. It would have made a better story had he been, say, a neurologist bearing that name.

  8. Yes. Although I hope never to have to research a good neurologist for anyone.

  9. Taira Hill PriceMay 27, 2017 at 8:42 PM

    Sam Hill is my great great great grandpa. At least, according to my grandmother. They were very close, and it is written in our family records that the term What in Sam Hill stemmed from an event in their friendship but I never knew the exact reason. Very cool.

    1. That is so very cool, Taira. Thanks for reporting in here!