World Wide Words logo

Sam Hill

Q From Doug Hickey: I have often heard in American movies and on television phrases like ‘What in the Sam Hill is going on?’ Or, ‘What the Sam Hill happened here?’ Or, some such exclamation. I have not been able to find the basis of this expression.

A There is a story sometimes told (for example in Edwin Mitchell’s Encyclopedia of American Politics in 1946) that one Colonel Samuel Hill of Guilford, Connecticut, would often run for political office at some point in the early nineteenth century but always without success. Hence, “to run like Sam Hill” or “go like Sam Hill”. The problem is that nobody has found any trace of this monumentally unsuccessful candidate.

On the other hand, an article in the New England Magazine in December 1889 entitled Two Centuries and a Half in Guilford Connecticut mentioned that, “Between 1727 and 1752 Mr. Sam. Hill represented Guilford in forty-three out of forty-nine sessions of the Legislature, and when he was gathered to his fathers, his son Nathaniel reigned in his stead” and a footnote queried whether this might be the source of the “popular Connecticut adjuration to ‘Give ‘em Sam Hill’?” So the tale has long legs.

The expression has been known since the late 1830s. Despite the story, it seems to be no more than a personalised euphemism for “hell”.

Page created 6 Nov. 2004

Support World Wide Words and keep this site alive.

Donate by selecting your currency and clicking the button.

Buy from Amazon and get me a small commission at no cost to you. Select a site and click Go!

World Wide Words is copyright © Michael Quinion, 1996–2014. All rights reserved. See the copyright page for notes about linking to and reusing this page. For help in viewing the site, see the technical FAQ. Your comments, corrections and suggestions are always welcome.

World Wide Words is copyright © Michael Quinion, 1996–2014. All rights reserved.
This page URL:
Last modified: 6 November 2004.