Historically Speaking

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Posts Tagged ‘Hatfields and McCoys’

Sam Hill

Posted by Elyse Bruce on March 20, 2018

From time to time, you might hear some of the older folk wonder what in Sam Hill is going on with the younger generation. So who is this Sam Hill they mention, and how is it any of his business what’s going on with anyone?

Sam Hill saw widespread use from the mid 1830s onward, and is a 19th century euphemism (in other words, a minced oath) for Hell. It is used to express extreme confusion, surprise, or agitation.

INTERESTING SIDE NOTE 1:  This is what is commonly known as a bowdlerization (meaning it was censored because it was deemed by adults to be inappropriate for children to exposed to the actual word or expression) and coined after English physician Thomas Bowdler (11 July 1754 – 24 February 1825) whose best known published efforts was a version of Shakespeare that would not offend or corrupt 19th century women and children).

But getting back to Sam Hill and what the hubbub is all about, who in the world was Sam Hill in the first place, and why is he associated with swearing?

No, it was not from a surveyor named Samuel W. Hill (1819 – 1889) who swore a blue streak.

No, it was not from a lawyer named Samuel Hill (13 May 1857 – 26 February 1931) who also was said to swear up a storm.

No, it was not from the investigator and adjutant-general of Kentucky, Sam Hill (30 January 1844 – 30 May 1904) who was sent by Governor Simon Buckner (1 April 1823 – 8 January 1914) to figure out what was going on with the Hatfield and McCoy feud.

No, it was not from the Connecticut legislator named Sam Hill (he represented Guilford from 1727 through to 1752) who was a force to be reckoned with if you went up against him.

Many claim that one of those four people is the Sam Hill in the expression, and every single one of them would be mistaken.

Interestingly enough, in “Roughing It In The Busy: Or, Life In Canada” by Susanna Moodie (6 December 1803 – 8 April 1885) published in two volumes in 1852 by Richard Bentley publishers in London, England, she uses the expression in a passage of her book.

INTERESTING SIDE NOTE 2: Susanna Moodie was the sister of English historical writer and poet Agnes Strickland (18 July 1796 – 8 July 1874) who wrote “Lives of the Queens of England” and Susanna dedicated her book to Agnes.

INTERESTING SIDE NOTE 3: Susanna Moodie was primarily known in the 1850s for her volumes of poetry published in 1831 under her maiden name of Susanna Strickland. In the foreword to her book, the publisher states that Susanna Moodie’s lyrical composition, “Sleigh Song” was extremely popular in Canada.

INTERESTING SIDE NOTE 4: Susanna Moodie was the wife of Scottish-born army officer, farmer, civil servant, and author John Wedderburn Dunbar Moodie (7 October 1797 – 22 October 1869), author of “Ten Years In South Africa: Including a Particular Description of the Wild Sports of that Country.” As husband and wife, they settled in Belleville, Ontario, Canada.

INTERESTING SIDE NOTE 5: Susanna Moodie was also the sister of author, teacher, botanist, and naturalist Catharine Parr Traill (9 January 1802 – 29 August 1899), and of Samuel Strickland (1804 – 3 January 1867) author of “Twenty Seven Years In Canada West” among other books.

INTERESTING SIDE NOTE 6: All the Stricklands mentioned in this entry were siblings of English author Jane Margaret Strickland (18 April 1800 – 14 June 1888) who published her first book in 1854, published a biography about her sister Agnes Strickland in 1887, and cared for their mother Elizabeth Homer Strickland (1772 – 10 September 1864).

In Susanna Moodie’s book, she uses the expression Sam Hill in such a way that there’s no doubt Sam Hill was considered swearing back in the mid 1800s.

“Do you swear?”

“Swear? What harm? It eases one’s mind when one’s vexed. Everybody swears in this country. My boys all swear like Sam Hill; and I used to swear mighty bit oaths till about a month ago, when the Methody parson told me that if I did not leave it off I should go to tarnation bad place; so I dropped some of the worst of them.”

“You would do wisely to drop the rest; women never wear in my country.”

“Well, you don’t say! I always heer’d that were very ignorant. Will you lend me the tea?”

In Volume 15 of the 1841 edition of “The Ladies’ Companion and Literary Expositor” there was an article titled, “Memoirs of Mr. Samuel Hill” that was based on a Cape Cod Annual poem of the same name. Tongue in cheek, the take found in this 1841 publication by an unnamed author states that Sam Hill was a New Englander by virtue of the following facts:

Barkhemsted folks believe Mr. Hill to have been born there, merely because wooden-dishes were first fabricated within the precincts … Wethersfield seems to be quite certain that a man of Sam’s sensibilities must necessarily first have learned to weep among the onion patches of Piquaug. Hebron puts in her claim upon the principle of the pump; merely resting it upon the traditionary testimony as to his having frequently been subjected to involuntary ablution under the spout of that losel engine.

The author then goes on to dash the hopes of Barkhemsted, Wethersfield, Hebron, and a great many other locations with the deft sweep of his pen.

Sam Hill‘s history — and the extended history of the women he courted and what happened to the beaus who had previously courted those same women — is examined with the same attention to detail.

Mention is made of his legendary singing voice which is said to be “famous for his vocal (or rather his nasal excellence, for Sam’s melody was always most conspicuous through the nose)” in the neighboring parishes of Upper Schreechington, and East Gruntingburgh.

When all was said and done, the claim was that Sam Hill was a household name from Rye to Passamaquaddy, and yet no one knew Sam Hill, even though he clearly “possessed more attributes than anybody else in creation.” It was said that “no other individual was ever celebrated and sworn by for so great a diversity of opposite qualities” as Sam Hill was.

No true-blooded yankee ever had the toothache without ascribing to his ailment an intensity compared with my hero. His tooth aches “like Sam Hill.” If a fellow is swift of foot, the New-Englanders are unanimous in the opinion that he “runs like Sam Hill,” and if a cripple gets along leisurely in the world it is said of him at once that he limps like the same personage, and poor old Broom’s cattle on the Colchester turnpike always had the name of being “slow as Sam Hill.”

“What the Sam Hill is the matter with you?” is a common expression, whenever any thing extraordinary is discernible in a man’s deportment, and you “lie like Sam Hill,” if a neighbor’s word is distrusted. “True as Sam Hill” is equally in the mouths of those who would swear to the veracity of a favorite statement.

A man is said to be as smart, and he is said to be as dull as “Sam Hill” — and if he is very bold or very timourous, “Sam Hill” is still the standard by which his good and bad qualities are measured. Of course, as I have already remarked, my hero must have been possessed of all sorts of qualities, and have been gifted with more versatility of powers than even the admirable Chrichton himself.

In the end, the author of this piece writes this about himself as an author, and the piece he has published in this magazine:

This biography will be looked upon in various lights by the reader. One class will call it “stupid as Sam Hill,” and another will pronounce it “smart as Sam Hill.” This latter body of citizens are very sensible people, and my heart warms to them like — SAM HILL.

Sam Hill shows up in the August 21, 1839 issue of the Havana Republican newspaper of New York state in an article titled, “Majorjack On A Whaler.”

What in sam hill is that feller ballin’ about?

INTERESTING SIDE NOTE 7: Majorjack refers to Gump-link character Major Jack Downing by American humorist Seba Smith (14 September 1791 – 28 July 1868). Seba Smith was among the first to use American vernacular in his humorous writings, and his style led the way for other American humorists such as Will Rogers (4 November 1879 – 15 August 1935).

Oddly enough, the expression Sam on its own without the addition of Hill as a last name referred to a know-nothing person. Need more be said about how people felt about Sam in general with or without a last name?

Idiomation takes this to mean that the expression Sam Hill was around since at least the turn of the 19th century, and most likely long before then although Idiomation was unable to find an earlier published version than the 1839 newspaper account.  It was, however, understood by the general public to have been included in that 1839 article so it was already in use among the people.

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