“What the Sam Hill?” was a phrase my father often used, but none of my generation did, and I had not heard it for years, not even in old movies where they often said “swell” and called adult women “kid.” But I heard it last week, and it came out of me. All those years, it was sitting inside, ready to pop out in the right moment of stress. Who was Sam Hill? What does the phrase mean? I didn’t know, myself.
My grandparents on either side never used it, so it was not a Pennsylvania Dutch or an Old English thing. It seemed unique to my father’s time and had the earmarks of a trendy flapper-era term, or it may have been a Clifton Heights thing, and perhaps some of it migrated to Aldan.
Ah, but this is the age of electronic information, and all I had to do was ask Cortana, the voice on my computer. Your computer may have a different, but similar, voice. She will answer questions, but not actually do anything. That would really sell computers.
(I do not picture Cortana as the image on the left. That must have been drawn by a testosterone-poisoned teenaged boy who is scared to death of real women. I picture my personal assistant as an efficient post-menopausal woman, not a half-naked bimbo the age of my granddaughters. Putchur clothes on, Sweety, and get ready for school! Fred Weinstein of our safety patrol is waiting at the corner to help you cross the street.)
Cortana did have an answer—maybe not the answer, but an answer, which was more than I expected.
A Wikipedia reference has citations that go back to the 1830s, and suggest it was a simple bowdlerization of “hell.” Instead of saying, “What the hell?” you could say, “What the Sam Hill?” as something less offensive. Today, even mature women say, “WTF?” and who cares if you are offended?
One early Sam Hill owned a general store in Arizona that carried almost everything (like Fairfax Hardware, my local hardware store). The original building still stands in Prescott, Arizona.
Another Sam Hill was a fiery Connecticut legislator who was the subject of the phrase, “Give ‘em Sam Hill!”
Still another Sam Hill was a famous millionaire businessman who became associated with the phrase in the 1920s, although he wasn’t yet born when it first appeared.
Yet another Sam Hill (1819–1889) was a Pennsylvania surveyor whose language was so foul his very name became synonymous with swear words. (I like this one the best. His language must have turned the sky blue to be so immortalized. He was a real cursing #$%&!!!)
And there is even the variant, “Samil,” which is a shortened name of the archangel Samuel that may factor in somehow. (My father never said, “What the Samil?”)
As with many popular usages, any of these Sam Hills could be a valid origin since all of their reputations contributed to the popularity of the phrase that my own father eventually picked up. Now I have it, too, I kid you not.
Scheduling Note: My usual posting schedule has been on Mondays, Wednesdays, and Fridays. I am excited by each one, and I usually post them as soon as I can, shortly after midnight on those days. But I can change, and will move up Monday’s posting to sometime on Sunday evening to give the weekend readers more material. I can’t imagine this will make any difference to most, but thought I should let you know before you wonder, “What the Sam Hill is he doing?” If you still want to read Monday’s posting on Monday, it will be there waiting.
The change has nothing to do with my getting more sleep. I can schedule a posting for anytime in the future, so I can be dead and gone, deep in my eternal rest, but I have enough backlog to speak from the grave for months and months. Chilling thought!