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Sam Hill is an American English slang phrase, a euphemism or minced oath for "the devil" or "hell" personified (as in, "What in the Sam Hill is that?"). Etymologist Michael Quinion and others date the expression back to the late 1830s; they and others consider the expression to have been a simple bowdlerization, with, according to the Oxford English Dictionary, an unknown origin.

Possible referents

Candidate referents for the use date back to at the 1700s.

For example, according to Quinion:
an article in the New England Magazine in December 1889 entitled "Two Centuries and a Half in Guilford, Connecticutmarker" 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’?"

The millionaire Samuel Hill, a businessman and "good roads" advocate in the Pacific Northwest, became associated with the phrase in the 1920s, a reference that made it into Time magazine when he convinced Queen Marie of Rumania to travel to rural Washington to dedicate Hill's Maryhill Museum of Artmarker. The fact that "Father of Good Roads" Samuel Hill hadn't been born when the figure of speech first appeared in a publication rules out the possibility that he was the original Sam Hill in question.

However, this Hill family of Seattle are not the only ones referenced in this way; other published usages include "go like Sam Hill" or "run like Sam Hill" - in reference to Colonel Samuel Hill of Guilford, Connecticutmarker who perpetually ran for office in the late 19th Century. However, he was apparently so unsuccessful that except for a brief mention in the Encyclopedia of American Politics, 1946 edition, there is scarce evidence that he existed.

H. L. Mencken suggested that the "Sam" in the phrase derives from Samiel, the name of the Devil in Der Freischütz, an opera by Carl Maria von Weber that was performed in New Yorkmarker in 1825.


  1. Words to the Wise: Issue 156, page 2 from the website of the Institute for Etymological Research and Education

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