Carry coals to Newcastle


What's the meaning of the phrase 'Carry coals to Newcastle'?

To carry coals to Newcastle is to undertake something which is both unnecessary and pointless.

What's the origin of the phrase 'Carry coals to Newcastle'?

Newcastle Upon Tyne in England was the UK’s first coal exporting port and has been well-known as a coal mining centre since the Middle Ages, although the trade is much diminished in recent years.

‘Carrying coal to Newcastle’ has long been used in the UK as an archetypically pointless activity – there being more than enough coal in Newcastle already.

Other countries have similar phrases; in German it’s ‘taking owls to Athens’ (the inhabitants of Athens already being thought to have sufficient wisdom). ‘Selling snow to Eskimos’ or ‘selling sand to Arabs’ are similar phrases, although they refer to things that are difficult to achieve, that is, requiring of superb sales skills.

Despite the name of the city, Newcastle’s castle keep is hardly new – it replaced an earlier ‘old’ 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.”

Trend of carry coals to newcastle in printed material over time

Gary Martin is a writer and researcher on the origins of phrases and the creator of the Phrase Finder website. Over the past 26 years more than 700 million of his pages have been downloaded by readers. He is one of the most popular and trusted sources of information on phrases and idioms.

Gary Martin

Writer and researcher on the origins of phrases and the creator of the Phrase Finder website. Over the past 26 years more than 700 million of his pages have been downloaded by readers. He is one of the most popular and trusted sources of information on phrases and idioms.