Last Sunday’s post was about minced oaths. “What in the Sam Hill!” is another example.
The Cassell’s Dictionary of Slang says the exclamation “Sam Hill!” (also used as “What the Sam Hill!” or “What in Sam Hill!”) originated in early 1800s America as a euphemism for “Hell!” In other words, a minced oath.
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?”
The fact that the beginning letters of the two words are printed as 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.”
Wikipedia offers several suggestions as to the origin of the phrase if it indeed refers to a person named Sam Hill. These include a store owner in Prescott, Arizona; a politician in Guilford, Connecticut; a surveyor connected with the Keweenaw Peninsula; and the former adjutant general of Kentucky, who was called on to investigate the Hatfields and McCoys family feud in 1887.
On one episode of M*A*S*H, Sherman Potter said, “What in San Juan Hill were you doing?” I suspect that “San Juan Hill” was simply another variation of “Sam Hill.” Many people have been named Sam Hill and nobody knows which one, if any, was the one immortalized in the expression.
My guess is that the person who created the expression “what in the sam hill” knew, or knew of a Sam Hill, and substituted the name for “hell.” After all, “Hill” sounds a hell of a lot like “hell.”