The phrase “carry coals to Newcastle” means to do something wholly pointless.
Newcastle Upon Tyne in England was the UK’s first coal exporting port and has been well-known as a coal mining centre since the Middle Ages. Therefore, sending coal to Newcastle was a complete waste of time.
The association of the city with coal and the phrase itself are old. In 1606, Thomas Heywood wrote: “As common as coales from Newcastle.” The phrase “To carry Coals to Newcastle” is first documented in North America in 1679 in William Fitzhugh’s letters.
Timothy Dexter, an American entrepreneur, succeeded in defying the idiom in the 1700s by actually shipping coal to Newcastle. Renowned for his eccentricity and widely regarded as a buffoon, he was persuaded to sail a shipment of coal to Newcastle by rival merchants plotting to ruin him. However, he made a large profit because his cargo arrived during a miners’ strike which had crippled local production.
Although the coal industry of Newcastle upon Tyne is now practically non-existent, the expression can still be used for the harbor of Newcastle in Australia. Abundant coal deposits were discovered there and the Australian Newcastle has succeeded its UK namesake by becoming the largest exporter of coal in the modern world.
Parallels in other industries are being found, and the idiom is now frequently used by the media when reporting business ventures whose success may initially appear just as unlikely. It has been referred to in coverage of the export to India of chicken tikka masala from the UK, the sale of Scottish pizzas to Italy, and the flowing of champagne and cheese from Britain to France.
Other countries have similar phrases. In German it’s “taking owls to Athens,” since the inhabitants of Athens are already thought to have sufficient wisdom. “Selling snow to Eskimos” or “selling sand to Arabs,” also seems pointless.
I know a man who used to say, on the approach of Christmas, “I hope nobody gives me a book.”
“Because I already have a book.”