Archive for the ‘Origins of Words’ Category

What in the Sam Hill?

Thursday, December 18th, 2008

I love words and phrases. I am always curious about the etymology of them, their origins. I look them up in my etymology or origin books or online. I am always finding clever ways to not swear, like “what in the Helinski?” or “What in the Sam Hill?” It is fun to create new ways to not swear…clever ways. Of course, I did not think up “What in the Sam Hill”. It has been around for quite awhile.

I wanted to know what the origin of this phrase was so I looked it up and the following explanation is what I learned about its origin.

Sam Hill was always running for political office but since no one really knew who he was the phrase was born, “Who in the Sam Hill?” Apparently, there is little evidence he was ever around aside from his infamous perpetual campaigning.

The more interesting part for me (because I am a location narcissist) is that apparently, Seattle journalists frequently used this phrase in the turn of the century. =) The first recorded use of this phrase in print was in 1839 in Seattle newspapers referring to railroad tycoon, Jim Hill. The story is as follows:

Jim Hill, the legendary ’empire builder,’ whose railroads, including the Great Northern, remained his last monument, was a man given to notable rages when anyone dared to oppose one of his grandiose schemes. So frequent were these tirades, according to Roessner, that the papers carried as a standing head: ‘Jim Hill is as mad as Sam Hill.”1

  1. “Morris Dictionary of Word and Phrase Origins” by William and Mary Morris (HarperCollins, New York, 1977, 1988). []