Carry Coals to Newcastle

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Carry Coals to Newcastle : Phrases


To do something pointless and superfluous.


Newcastle on Tyne in England was a well known coal mining area and the UK's first coal exporting port. Taking coal there was an archetypally pointless activity. Other countries have similar phrases; in German it's 'taking owls to Athens' (the inhabitants of Athens already having sufficient wisdom). 'Selling snow to Eskimos', which in many people's understanding is also the same, has a different connotation. That refers to something which is difficult to achieve - requiring of superb sales skills.

Despite the name of the city, Newcastle's castle keep is almost a thousand years old - having replaced an earlier castle in 1178. The association of the city with coal and the phrase itself are also old. In 1606, Thomas Heywood in 'If you know not me, you know no bodie: or, the troubles of Queene Elizabeth' wrote:

"As common as coales from Newcastle."

The explicit link with pointlessness came soon afterwards, in Thomas Fuller's The history of the worthies of England, 1661:

"To carry Coals to Newcastle, that is to do what was done before; or to busy one's self in a needless imployment."

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