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A Postscript to the Series on Unpleasant People: Humbug


By Anatoly Liberman

Humbug may have fallen into disuse if Uncle Scrooge had not repeated it with such relish. Coined or made fashionable some time around 1750, it managed to disguise its origin most skillfully. John Fielding evidently liked humbug, for in 1751 he made one of his characters use it. People with a refined taste raged against this “very low word,” but it stayed and continued to puzzle etymologists. In the welter of conjectures about its origin the most important clue seems to have been discovered, though accidentally, but what we read in dictionaries is not quite satisfactory, for they either use their favorite formula “of undiscovered/ obscure origin” or state that humbug is made up of hum and bug. The truth of the latter statement cannot be denied, and this is probably indeed how humbug came into being, but we have to understand the process of coining. Someone could not simply have taken two building blocks—hum and bug—and put them together. Humbug is not like pancake or haywire, which are undoubtedly pan + cake and hay + wire, for a pancake is indeed a kind of cake and haywire is a kind of wire, while (a) humbug is not exactly a bug, even if we refer to the sense of hum “to cajole, flatter” and to that of bug “goblin, bogeyman.”

Here are the definitions of humbug from some dictionaries: “an imposition, an imposture, a hoax, deception; baloney, nonsense, rubbish; a false alarm; bugbear; a cheat.” “A false alarm” and “bugbear” are outdated. Turning to the origin of the word, we should remember that at its inception it seems to have been a piece of inane, perhaps even odious, as someone called it, but fashionable slang and thus could have come from a foreign language, or it could have been a cant word that the “swells” suddenly appropriated and admired precisely for its vulgarity. (“You are so hideous, that we positively like you. Let’s fly to the nearby swamp. Some young females, very pretty maidens, live there, and your awful looks may have success there,” said two recently hatched geese to the Ugly Duckling.) I think Greek and Latin etymons should be ruled out, because if, for example, Latin ambages “quibbling, subterfuge,” mainly used in the ablative form ambage” (to cite the most often mentioned putative source from a classical language) had been reshaped into humbug, the result would have been humorous rather than “very low.” Also, the second a in ambage is long, and, considering the rules of the 18th-century pronunciation of Latin, the pun would probably have yielded umbage, stressed on the second syllable and rhyming with beige or rage, regardless of initial h (added to mock the Cockney accent?). Nor does the derivation of humbug from Irish uim bog “a worthless coin” (literally, “soft copper”), pronounced more or less like Engl. oom-bug, and also without h-, inspire much confidence. The despised coin was minted under James II and withdrawn in the reign of William III, but William was crowned in 1689 and died in 1702. The word humbug, which took England by storm, would probably have surfaced in texts earlier if it had been a widely known term of abuse in Ireland in the reign of either king. A dancing master named Humbog has been unearthed. The name is curious and not to be dismissed as irrelevant, but the master was active in 1777, too late to account for the popularity of humbug. Other guesses are even less interesting. Especially unprofitable is reference to Hamburg as the source of unreliable news during the Napoleonic wars. Humbug is not a hamburger.

Humdrum, which appeared in books exactly two hundred years before humbug, also begins with hum-. The two formations are similar, but though we cannot explain -drum (a mere reduplicating syllable?), humdrum poses fewer problems because its two elements rhyme, and such compounds and phrases are numerous: cf. hobnob, faddy daddy, walkie-talkie, and the obnoxious nitty-gritty, regardless of how they arose. Hensleigh Wedgwood, Skeat’s predecessor and at one time his rival, quoted a long passage from Ben Jonson’s comedy The Alchemist (1610). The protagonist prescribes three drops of vinegar: “To sharpen your senses, and cry hum / Thrice and then buz as often.” Wedgwood believed that humbug owed something to the proximity of hum and buzz. In this form, his hypothesis carries no conviction, for both hum and buzz occur in the quotation where one expects them, and they do not form a whole, but he may have had a rational idea. (It will be added that Ben Jonson liked the pair, for in his Oberon he wrote: “‘Buz’ quoth the bluefly, / ‘Hum’ quoth the bee.”) I will now reproduce a correspondence by Albert Hartshorne published in Notes and Queries for February 2, 1901. It does not seem to have been noticed.

“I find the following entries in letters from a resident Fellow of Magdalene College, Cambridge, dated respectively 16 July, 1777, and 26 July 1778: ‘I desire she will remember my Lectures in horsemanship, as I am now become a Hum-Buz again in College and may not have ye pleasure of giving her any more of some time.’ ‘Riding alone by way of a ride with a College Hum-Buz is the deuce and all—besides there are hardly any College Hum-Buzzes left to ride.’ Was a humbuz an individual now known as an ‘old fogey’ and among the lower orders as a ‘codger’? and did the word change long after into ‘humbug’ used in apparently quite a different sense, as by Dickens in ‘Pickwick’?”

The OED cites humbuzz “cockchafer” (a predictable meaning) but gives no reference to a person called this. Assuming that some time around 1750 humbuz(z), Cambridge slang, existed and that it meant “someone droning on and on but speaking in platitudes or producing what we today call buzzwords most of the time” (the Fellow of Magdalene college, writing in 1777, had no doubt that he would be understood), the replacement of buzz by bug and endowing humbug with the sense “stuff and nonsense” would have been easy. If my idea is worth anything, James O. Halliwell, the author of A Dictionary of Archaic and Provincial Words… (1855), an indispensable book even to modern researchers, was partly right when he said: “Humbug, a person who hums, or deceives.” At first, humbug must have referred to a person, then to what this person said. When humbug was coined, humdrum provided a supporting environment. The rather insipid joke does seem to bear the imprint of a “university wit.” The origin of the word, as Skeat put it, is involved in obscurity, but he tended to think that it was “pedantically introduced” and looked on the link between humbug and Latin ambages as a remote possibility. Humbug hardly owes anything to classical learning, even if the milieu in which it sprang up was students, and more particularly, students at Cambridge. Perhaps some specialists in Cambridge slang will be able to confirm or disprove my tentative etymology.

Finally, humbug denotes a sweetmeat (both the lozenge and its name were, at least until recently, current nearly everywhere in England). A good deal has been written about its use, but I could not find any suggestions about its origin. The OED lists it as one of the meanings of humbug, possibly implying that here we have a facetious extension of humbug “imposition” (if so, then what is the connection?). Murray also gave humbug “a wooden yoke for horses” in the same entry, but, according to Skeat, this word is a homonym of humbug “imposition.” (“…an ignorant perversion of the well-known provincial word hamboro, or hambrough…. it is from hame, one of the pieces going round a horse-collar, and the A[nglo]-S[axon] beorgan, M[iddle] E[nglish] berwen, bergen, to protect…. The word is, perhaps, better known in the reversed form borough-ham, or boro-ham…. It thus becomes clear that humbug in this particular sense is a perverted and unoriginal form.”) I would be grateful for some information about humbug “sweetmeat.” Is it also “an ignorant perversion,” that is, a folk etymological alternation of some other word, like asparagus changed to sparrow grass?

While constantly saying bah, humbug, Uncle Scrooge did not realize how troublesome his favorite word was. But then, as we remember, he became a different man, celebrated Christmas, and never used it again.

Anatoly_libermanAnatoly Liberman is the author of Word Origins…And How We Know Them as well as An Analytic Dictionary of English Etymology: An Introduction. His column on word origins, The Oxford Etymologist, appears here, each Wednesday. Send your etymology question to blog.us@oup.com; he’ll do his best to avoid responding with “origin unknown.”

One Response to “A Postscript to the Series on Unpleasant People: Humbug”
  1. John Cowan says:

    I don’t see how hum-buz could mean ‘old fogey’, since the writer speaks of becoming a hum-buz again, and clearly once an old fogey, always an old fogey. But ‘someone who drones on and on’ seems quite plausible.

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