“It was a dog and pony show.” What?
“A real Rube Goldberg operation.” Who?
“Like coals to Newcastle.” Where?
“What the Sam Hill?” Huh?
When you spout these phrases, do you have any idea what you’re talking about?
Are you using them correctly or making a fool of yourself trying to sound intelligent?
When you least expect it, someone, somewhere, is sure to ask, “What do you mean by that?” So, don’t get caught with your pants down. Let’s cut to the chase and understand this mumbo jumbo. Make no bones about it; these phrases are easy as pie to understand. You won’t be in over your head.
The original “dog and pony shows,” were small traveling circuses in the late 19th and early 20th centuries. Animals, including dogs and ponies, were popular acts in these tent-less circuses.
Today, we use the idiomatic phrase “a dog and pony show,” to refer (usually negatively) to a complex production or presentation designed to sway opinion. For example, an elaborate and costly marketing campaign for a product or a political candidate, especially when it has little real substance, might be referred to as a “dog and pony show.” Knock on wood, you won’t fall for one. Don’t let anyone pull the wool over your eyes.
When we refer to something as a “Rube Goldberg Operation,” what do we mean? “Rube Goldberg” was an inventor, prolific cartoonist, sculptor, engineer and author. A Renaissance man of sorts, he was born in 1883 and lived until the ripe old age of 87, creating cartoon characters like “Professor Lucifer Gorgonzola Butts.” Professor Butts designed elaborate and unnecessarily complicated machines that carried out simple tasks like opening windows or scratching insect bites. These machines came to be called “Rube Goldberg Machines.” Here are a couple of examples.
Rube Goldberg™ & © of Rube Goldberg, Inc.
So, when we call something a “Rube Goldberg Operation” or “Rube Goldberg Machine,” we mean a system or procedure that is convoluted and overly-complex. If you happen to like this sort of thing, check out the Rube Goldberg student competitions on the internet.
How about the phrase “coals to Newcastle?” This idiom dates back to the 15th century. Newcastle, England was home to many coal mines and the coal was exported to London and other areas. Since it makes no sense to bring “coals to Newcastle,” because the place is already brimming with it, the phrase means to waste one’s energy on a useless task or to bring something to a place or person that already has too much of it.
Sort of like the Scottish food company that, in 2003, decided to sell pizzas to Italy (although the pizzas were gluten-free.) “I suppose the deal is the Italian version of sending coals to Newcastle,” Cosmo Pasta’s Cosmo Tamburro told The Daily Record of Edinburgh.
And then there’s “sam hill,” as in “what in the sam hill is going on?” There actually was a person with this name. Sam Hill, born in 1857, was a railroad executive who was instrumental in creating the Pacific Highway and the International Peace Arch at the American/Canadian border. But the idiom can’t be attributed to him, since the phrase predates his existence.
There supposedly was another Sam Hill, a farmer and politician from New England, but the phrase has nothing to do with him either.
Sam hill is simply a euphemism (a more socially acceptable way) to say “hell,” as in “what the hell is going on?” Some believe that the word “sam” means “damn,” so the idiom means “what the damn hell.” Sorry Mr. Hill. This idiom has nothing to do with you.
Now that you know the origin of a few oft-used phrases, you can use them with confidence. And here’s one for the road: “one for the road!”
Check out more idioms at www.idiomdictionary.com.