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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”.

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Copyright © Michael Quinion, 1996–. All rights reserved.
Page created 6 Nov. 2004

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The English language is forever changing. New words appear; old ones fall out of use or alter their meanings. World Wide Words tries to record at least a part of this shifting wordscape by featuring new words, word histories, words in the news, and the curiosities of native English speech.

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Last modified: 6 November 2004.