My stars and garters!

Robert Roe

On the way home from a trip to Loveland Castle earlier this week, my friend Kelly regaled my Bride and I with Beatles music on his car stereo. I invested the time annoying Kel with questions about which Beatle wrote whichever Fab Four song came on the radio.

That is, until “I am the Walrus.” Instead of my by-then wearisome authorship question, I asked “Why in the Sam Hill is he singing about custard in a dog’s eye – what is he saying?”

Kelly’s answer, in true “In A Godda Da Vida” fashion, was “Yellow mustard custard.”

The answer (of course) was “yellow matter custard,” which has nothing to do with today’s idle ramblings. Instead, I would like to talk about Sam Hill.

Who was Sam Hill? Was he a real person? Regardless, how did he get his name immortalized as a throwaway phrase in the American Lexicon?

As best as I could find, Samuel Hill was a Michigan surveyor from the 1800s. Seems he used such foul language that his name became synonymous for swear words. Another theory is that “Sam” came from “Sal(o)mon” and “Hell.” In other words, a euphemism. A euphemism? Great Scott!

Scott, you say. Where did that come from? Montgomery Scott from “Star Trek” was great. Yet the standard outcry of amazement and surprise harkens to the past, not the future.

Apparently, a century or two ago, the phrase started as what is called a “minced oath,” with author Sir Walter Scott and US General Winfield Scott having been attributed to the role of “Scott.” Short story long, some say the phrase is a polite way of saying “Great God.” “Heavens to Betsy!”

Which, Curious Ones, by sheer coincidence is our next colloquialism. It emanated from the 1800s, where water cooler talk conjectured that the titular Betsy was Betsy Ross of United States flag fame. Not to be confused with “Heavens to Murgatroyd,” popularized by cartoon character Snagglepuss on the “Yogi Bear” Show. Yes, a cartoon. “Katy, bar the door!”

That idiom is credited to people and places spanning several centuries. My favorite is Kate Barlass, from a 1906 children’s history book. Catherine Douglas, later Catherine “Kate” Barlass, was a historical figure who tried to prevent the assassination of King James I of Scotland in 1437. Bar the door, indeed, Catherine.

There are quite a number of people who have been immortalized through verbiage. “In like Flynn (a nod to Errol),” or “Flint,” if you are a James Coburn fan.

“For Pete’s sake (a substitute of ‘for Christs sake’ by the way)”, if every “Tom, Dick and Harry (a phrase for common knowledge)” knew the minutiae of the Beatles, they would already know the dog’s eye consisted of yellow matter custard. After all, have you ever heard of yellow mustard custard – would you want to hear about it?

Seriously, folks, from “Great Caesar’s Ghost” to “Johnny on the spot,” do you have to have the “Midas touch” or the “patience of Job” to keep these idioms in order?

Robert Roe