Sign In | Create an Account | Welcome, . My Account | Logout | Subscribe | Submit News | Home RSS

Why do we say that?

Country Roads

June 11, 2012
Arvid Huisman ( , The Daily Freeman Journal

American English is replete with expressions that we all understand but don't know how or where they originated.

For instance, who in the Sam Hill is Sam Hill?

I never knew who Sam Hill was until I became curious enough to do some research. "Sam Hill is an American English slang phrase, a euphemism or minced oath for 'the devil' or 'hell' personified," according to Wikipedia. The earliest known use of the phrases was in the late 1830. Apparently there never was an official Sam Hill.

Article Photos

The Bible is the origin of a phrase about hills that I'm hearing more often these days: older than the hills. Research squashed my assumption that Sam Hill and his brothers must be really old. In fact, the phrase comes from the story of Job and his travails.

One of Job's buddies, Eliphaz, asks, "Are you the first man ever born? Were you brought forth before the hills?" (Job 15:7 NIV). In other words: "Are you so old that you were the first man born or are you even older than that - older than the hills?"

I've heard someone say, "She's the apple of his eye!" Where did that come from?

Shakespeare used the phrase in "A Midsummer Night's Dream," but the phrase is much older. In fact it's as old as Moses. In the Old Testament's Deuteronomy 32:10 the children of Israel are referred to as the apple of God's eye.

Have you ever been over a barrel? You know, in a situation where you were unable to take the next step? Or where the solution is in the hands of a third party? I have been over the barrel, but didn't know how the phrase originated.

Here's the scoop: years ago when someone had been rescued from drowning he (or she) was placed over a barrel to drain water from his lungs. A person in that position was unable to act on his own and was totally dependent on his (or her) rescuer.

Many times I have used the phrase "hit the sack" when retiring for the evening. Years ago a sack was synonymous with bed. Most early mattresses were made from a cloth sack full of hair, straw, hay or some other stuffing. So when you went to bed, you hit the sack.

Did your mother ever tell you that she was at the "end of her rope?" If not, your mother didn't have four ornery sons and two mischievous daughters like my mother did. When Mom told us she was at the end of her rope, she was using a phrase that goes back to an earlier phrase, "at the end of my tether," such as a rope to which a horse might be tied. While the original phrase expressed a sense of self-control, more recent usage suggests that the individual has run out of patience. Mom's half dozen little heathens, I am ashamed to admit, ran her out of her patience frequently.

I once told an obnoxious female telemarketer that with her approach she was "barking up the wrong tree." She took offense and told me she wasn't a dog. I begged to differ but took the high road and just hung up.

My friend, Scott, introduced me to coon hunting and that's where this phrase originated. Raccoons often take sanctuary in trees at night. When the coon hounds spot a raccoon up a tree they stand at the base and bark. Sometimes, in the dark, they get the wrong tree and bark up that wrong tree.

I don't suppose the female telemarketer would have felt better if I explained this to her.

It won't be long before fresh Iowa sweet corn will be available again. I always appreciate it when I buy a dozen ears and the seller throws in an extra ear to make it a baker's dozen.

History tells us that medieval English bakers often cheated customers by making loaves that had more air pockets than bread. A 13th century law required bakers to sell their bread by weight and made it illegal to sell it underweight. To avoid a heavy fine for selling underweight bread, many bakers added a loaf for every dozen. Just to be sure.

Well, it's getting late. I don't know how in the Sam Hill I got onto this subject. I'm older than the hills and it's time to hit the sack.



I am looking for: