The Grammarphobia Blog

What the Sam Hill!

Q: Please comment on the saying “What the Sam Hill!”

A: The Cassell’s Dictionary of Slang says the exclamation “Sam Hill!” originated in early 19th-century America as a euphemism for “Hell!”

As you point out, it’s often found in the longer expression “What the Sam Hill!” I’ve also heard it as “What in Sam Hill!”

The Oxford English Dictionary says the origin of the expression is not known. The first published reference to it in the OED is from the Aug. 21, 1839, issue of the Havana (NY) Republican: “What in sam hill is that feller ballin’ about?”

Did a guy named Sam Hill have anything to do with the origin of this exclamation. The fact that the “s” and “h” of “sam hill” are lower-case in the newspaper suggests that the expression didn’t originally refer to a real person.

The Morris Dictionary of Word and Phrase Origins says the exclamation “was very popular with frontiersmen, especially when they needed to clean up their language in the presence of ladies.”

In English, of course, there’s a long history of euphemistic substitutions for strong language (“golly” and “gosh” originated as less blasphemous substitutes for “God”).

I wrote a couple of blog entries on this subject last year, one concerning “doggone it” and the other about “gosh darn it” as well as some related phrases.

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