What in tarnation?

Posted by | May 8, 2017

www.parkergun.org/new_page_63.htm“Tarnation!” reads the title at the bottom of the Aug 1922 National Sportsman cover.

“What in tarnation?” is one of a wide variety of euphemistic expressions of surprise, bewilderment or anger that arose in 18th and 19th century America. Perhaps due to our Puritan legacy, Americans were, during this period, especially creative in devising oaths that allowed us to express strong emotions while still skirting blasphemy.

Such inventions as “heck,” “drat,” “darn,” “gosh,” “jiminy,” “gee-whiz” and “goldarn” were all devised to disguise exclamations that would have been considered shocking in polite society. “Sam Hill,” for example, is simply an early 19th century euphemism for “hell” (and while there have been many people named Sam Hill throughout history, the expression does not come from the name of any particular Sam Hill).

“Tarnation,” which dates back to the late 18th century, is an interesting example of this generation of euphemisms because it’s actually two euphemisms rolled into one word. The root of “tarnation” is “darnation,” a euphemistic modification of the word “damnation,” which at that time was considered unfit for polite conversation. “Darnation” became “tarnation” by being associated in popular speech with “tarnal,” an aphetic, or clipped, form of “eternal.”

It may seem odd that “eternal” would ever have been considered a curse word, but to speak of “the Eternal” at that time was often to invoke a religious context (God, Heaven, etc.), and thus to label something or someone “eternal” in a disparaging sense (“You eternal villain!”) was considered a mild oath. Shakespeare, for example, used “eternal” in this way in at least two of his plays.

So at some point someone, probably in a moment of exasperation, mixed “darnation” with “tarnal,” and we ended up with “tarnation.”

Source: www.word-detective.com/050404.html

tarnation appalachian+language appalachian+culture appalachian+history history+of+appalachia appalachia

24 Responses

  • Janet Smart says:

    We’ve always said “tarnation”. I’ve often wondered where the saying came from.

  • Joan says:

    Now, I have a word for you — do you know the derivation, and from where this phaase comes from, “red the table”. In our family the phase is used for “clearing the table.
    For a long time my mother thought it was from her Pennsylvania Dutch ancestors. However I have read that it might come frome the Scots-Irish. Do you have an idea about this phrase?

  • Admin says:

    Not a clue! My Dad’s mom came from a long line of Scots-Irish and his dad came from a long line of Pennsy Dutch, so I would’ve thought I’d have encountered that phrase somewhere coming up.

    Ok, readers! Jump in here.

  • Susan says:

    Here’s a write-up on “red the table,” or as we used to say, “rid the table.” They explain it quite throughly, including why some say rid and some red.


  • Dave says:

    WHAT IN TARNATION? I love it

  • John says:

    I just said “what in tarnation?” and my co-workers asked from where I get my sayings. Your explanation was great. Thanks

  • Dan O says:

    I always figured it was a Southern thing, since I’ve only seemed to ever hear Southern people say it.

  • Jimmie says:

    The only thing I would add is that the two root words you mention actually go together in one curse: “Eternal damnation!” Also, this is a common coupling of the two words in “fire and brimstone” gospel preaching that was common in those days. So it makes even more sense that they would come up with “tarnation” as a way to quickly curse the situation, or person (or the predator hawk as seen in the old advertisement above), without actually crossing the line into literal cursing.

  • Carson Barham says:

    Ummm, almost correct…”What in the Sam Hill?” derives its origins from Samuel Ewing Hill, who was sent by the Governor of Kentucky to see what was going on in reference to the Hatfields & McCoys family feud in 1887. Between 1880 and 1891, the feud claimed more than a dozen members of the two families, becoming headline news around the country, and compelling the governors of both Kentucky and West Virginia to call up their state militias to restore order. The Governor of West Virginia once even threatened to have his militia invade Kentucky. Kentucky Governor Simon Bolivar Buckner in response sent his Adjutant General to Pike County, Kentucky to investigate the situation. Newspapers from around the country awaited word from Adjutant General Sam Hill to find out “what in the Sam Hill was going on up there.”

  • Mandel Mus says:

    What in tarnation — “What in the entire nation” — is this all about?
    ~modern usage

  • Sine Nomine says:

    Thanks Mandel Mus. “What in tarnation — “What in the entire nation” — is this all about?”

    Maybe that’s why I say I’ve been all over tarnation looking for such and such. Don’t know how modern this usage is since I’d have picked it up from grandparents born before 1900, and they’re from Chicago, btw.

  • Fezziwig says:

    This post would make a lot more sense if the author realized that it was one phrase.

    “Eternal damnation” to “tarnal darnation” to “tarnation”.

    Then you wouldn’t have to make up the part about ‘eternal’ being an epithet.

  • Steve Zawadzki says:

    Well dag-nab-it & goldang; I haven’t heard that one for awhile. That sure was a bodacious explanation; thanx

  • Jessie says:

    I always thought tarnation meant hell! Tar as in (hot tar) as in (hot like hell), and nation as in a place (hell). And red the table I always thought was RID the table (as in clean, get rid of, the stuff on the table).

  • David says:


    For any that are interested in linguistics; this is a great site.

  • Eli says:

    My dad born in the 50’s said,”What in tarnation”, all the time with my 3 brothers and I!

  • Larry says:

    My grandfather, a Christian minister born in 1872 would always say things like, “thunderation”, “what in tarnation”, and “what in Sam Hill” and his wife, my grandmother would refer to automobiles as “machines” when I was a kid in the 50’s. Gotta love those old expressions !

  • Jeff Bowman says:

    Raised in the South (NC—The “Tar Heel” State), I’ve also always thought that “tarnation’ had a connotation of “remote,” “out there,” and “in the boonies.” I’ve heard not just “what in tarnation?!” used but also “WHERE in tarnation?! as in “Where in tarnation have you been?” “Where in tarnation is that?!”.

  • Jeff Bowman says:

    Also, I think it’s only fair to give the writers of the character of Jed Clampett in the “The beverly Hillbillies” TV show their due for bringing the phrase “What in Tarnation?” into national lime light as one of Jed’s favorites sayings.

  • Matt says:

    My grandmother was from NC and used the phrase a lot. “What in Tarnation have you done!”, and “Where in tarnation have you been!”. She graduated from college Magna Cum Laude in her 50s.

  • Brian says:

    I always wanted to ask Yosemite Sam this question. But I was afraid he would Blast me to Smithereenies

  • Smike says:

    @Carson – Nah. That’s one possible explanation, but, much like “the whole nine yards” and “ok,” “what in the Sam Hill” doesn’t have a definitive, documented origin.

  • […] The expression ‘what in tarnation?’ comes from ‘tarnal’ meaning eternal and ‘nation’ meaning damnation. The phrase is effectively ‘What the hell?’.. Ref: http://www.appalachianhistory.net/2010/05/what-in-tarnation.html […]

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