[Ads-l] Sam Hill, 1830

dave@wilton.net dave at WILTON.NET
Mon Sep 6 20:24:24 UTC 2021

Mencken was just repeating the suggestion by A.E. Sokol in American Speech (1940). The dates work, but it seems strained to me. The variation on "hell" explanation has the advantage of being the most parsimonious.
The other referents are just attempts at explanation without evidentiary support. "Sam Hill" is a rather common name. 
-----Original Message-----
From: "Baker, John" <JBAKER at STRADLEY.COM>
Sent: Monday, September 6, 2021 3:25pm
Subject: Re: [ADS-L] Sam Hill, 1830

The story Dave excerpts also appeared in the Catskill Recorder on Feb. 25, 1830 (NewspaperArchive), so the 1830 date seems extremely probable.

“Sam Hill” is generally thought to be a euphemism for hell, but a different derivation was asserted in an article in The Reporter (Le Grand, Iowa) (Apr. 19, 1935) (NewspaperArchive):

“Have you ever “run like Sam Hill” to get somewhere? If so, the man who set the pace for you was Col. Samuel Hill (1678-1752) of Guilford, Conn. He was elected to the general assembly time after time and also served as justice of the New Haven county court, town clerk, “Clerk of the Proprietors of the Common and Undivided Land,” clerk of the probate court and judge of probate. In fact, he was so popular with the voters and was so continuously elected to office that the highest praise which could be bestowed upon a political candidate was to say that he “ran like Sam Hill.””

Wikipedia mentions several possible referents, including this one, for which it cites an article in the New England Magazine from December 1889. Most of the other suggested origins are too late to be consistent with usage by 1830 (and, frankly, a minor politician who died in 1752 seems too early). Apparently Mencken suggested that the phrase derives from Samiel, the name of the Devil in Der Freischutz, an opera by Carl Maria von Weber that was performed in New York City in 1825. Mencken’s suggestion, at least, has the advantage that the dating seems to work well.

John Baker

From: American Dialect Society <ADS-L at LISTSERV.UGA.EDU> On Behalf Of dave at wilton.net
Sent: Monday, September 6, 2021 1:02 PM
Subject: Sam Hill, 1830

OED and Green's have 1839.

Grenouille, Jean-Jacques. Letter. Independent Inquirer (Providence, Rhode Island), 12 February 1830, 1. Readex: America’s Historical Newspapers.

The database’s metadata gives an 1829 date, so use that year in searching for this source. Portions of the digital scan of the paper’s first page are illegible, including portions of the letter and the date on the masthead, which reads, “Friday Morning, February 1[indistinct]”. The date on the second page is “Friday, 12 February,” no year given. 12 February 1829 was a Thursday, but in 1830 it was a Friday. Other stories in the paper refer to dates earlier in February 1830 as well.

Grenouille and the letter are obviously editorial fictions:

"When I walk on the deck, I see one sailor man have one wheel, which he turn round first au droit, to the right, then turn him to the left, and I speak him, “Why for what you so moch labor always?”—and he say, “Sair, the dam ship steer like Sam Hill.” Well I not can understand, and then I go down in my chamber cabin, and I look in [line indistinct] not find Sam, but I ask the captain, and he laugh and say, “Sam one man’s name;” so I look and find Hill, one little mountain, but still I not understand what was Sam Hill.
Well, in three four day more, one night, the ship rock very moch, and the captain ask our officier, “What wether is on deck?” and he say, “it blow like Sam Hill.” Some four day more the ship go in New-York, and I walk on the land and stay for short time, and then I go in one batiment de vapeur, one steam-boat, and go at Providence. By and by one man what was not never been before in one steam-boat, he was look in the water, and he say, “I snum, she foam at the mouth like Sam Hill!” Ma foi! more Sam Hill.


"Monsieur le Prentair, if you can discover what is Sam Hill, or any of your correspondent, will you make me oblige in write one letter to me?"

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