Unable to Put the Kibosh on a Hard Word
By Anatoly Liberman
The young Dickens was the first to record the word kibosh. We don’t know for sure how it sounded in the 1830’s, but, judging by the spelling ky(e)-, it must always have been pronounced with long i. The main 19th-century English etymologists (Eduard Mueller, Hensleigh Wedgwood, and Walter W. Skeat) did not include kibosh in their dictionaries. They probably had nothing to say about it, though Mueller, a German, hardly ever saw such a rare and insignificant word. Even in Webster it appeared only at the beginning of the 20th century and, as far as its etymology is concerned, was given short (very short) shrift: “Slang.” Suggestions concerning the origin of kibosh kept turning up in the popular press, but they were too fanciful to satisfy anybody. Dickens wrote the following in Sketches by Boz (“Seven Dials”): “‘What do you mean by hussies?’ interrupted a champion of the other party, who has evinced a strong inclination to get up a branch fight on her own account. (‘Hooroar,’ ejaculates a pot-boy in parenthesis, ‘put the kyebosk [sic] on her, Mary!) ‘What do you mean by hussies?’ reiterated the champion.” (In those innocent days, when one could have intercourse with one’s neighbors, ejaculate meant “exclaim.”) This passage has been reproduced in many works dealing with kibosh.
In 1901, discussion on kibosh resurfaced, and the following explanation, by M. D. Davis became widely known: “…English slang is indebted to these synagogues for another peculiar term, kybosh, signifying a trifling affair, a matter of no moment. The evolution of the word would puzzle a Skeat. Originally it meant eighteenpence, a trifling amount. It is still used in that sense. It consists of two words, the guttural chi = eighteen, and bosh = penny….The Hebrew for penny is poshet, abbreviated into posh, afterwards bosh. Consequently, kybosh is eighteenpence good in Jewish affairs, something of no value in ordinary transactions.” Regardless of a Skeat, the Skeat must have been irritated by this note, but in the absence of a valid proposal, he preferred to keep silent (a rare case in his life). One need not have Skeat’s perspicacity or be a specialist in Hebrew to see how weak Davis’s etymology is. When the name of a small coin is used to characterize a meager quantity, words like penny and farthing come up. Would anyone think of eighteenpence as the embodiment of smallness? And how could a word meaning “trifle” become part of an idiom for “finish off” (with the definite article before it)? Davis did not say that a similar idiom existed in Hebrew or that chibosh means “a trifle” in that language. According to him, “kybosh is eighteenpence good in Jewish affairs,” whatever that means. Incidentally, eighteen pence was not such a small sum in the early part of the 19th century.
The OED had no enthusiasm for Davis’s hypothesis and said only: “Origin obscure. (It has been stated to be Yiddish or Anglo-Hebrew),” with reference to the article quoted above. So far, that entry has not been modified. In addition to the phrase put the kibosh on, kibosh has been recorded with the meanings “nonsense, humbug,” “the proper style or fashion ‘the thing’” (as in the proper kibosh, the correct kibosh), and, surprisingly, “Portland cement.” Unless put the kibosh on arose as an alteration of some foreign idiom, we must assume that kibosh, a separate word, existed before the long phrase. It is hard to imagine that kibosh “stop” (noun), kibosh “nonsense,” kibosh “the proper thing,” let alone kibosh “Portland cement,” are four etymologically distinct words. So what was the proto-kibosh? Was it “nonsense”?
Charles P. G. Scott, the etymologist for The Century Dictionary, thought so. I promote his name at every opportunity, for his achievement was great. He wrote single-handedly the etymologies for that colossal work. Naturally, not all of them were original, but all bear the imprint of his scholarship. This is what he suggested: “…origin obscure, but prob[ably] a spontaneous, emphatic word of purposely indefinite character, [from] ki-, ka, ker-, a vaguely introductory syllable… + bosh, an emphatic syllable (prob[ably] sometime associated with the historical word bosh, nothing, stuff, nonsense, a word of Turkish origin which came into English use at about the same time). As the word never had a definite meaning, it served as a convenient substitutionary word where emphasis was to be conveyed or precise words were lacking at the moment. Compare the similar vague substitutionary uses of thing, jig, bob, thingumbob [sic], stuff, etc….Hence specifically “the stuff used in filling cracks or giving finish or shadow to architectural sculptures, namely, Portland cement,” “wages, money” [dialectal], “stuff, nonsense; rubbish, bosh.”
This might look like a reasonable etymology, but for two things. First, the strange form kye-bosk that Dickens used has to be accounted for. Could he have misheard it? Or did someone mispronounce the word that was so new at that time that its final shape had not yet solidified? Neither alternative should be dismissed out of hand. The role of the reinforcing prefix ka- ~ ki- ~ ker- (possibly of Dutch and/or Celtic origin, though Scott called it sound imitative) needn’t be underrated. We have it in caboodle, kerplunk, and others, and its distant sibling may be cata- in catawampus. It has been suggested that canoodle is a blend of the verbs caress and noodle. Unless we are dealing with a transparent word like motel, brunch, or Jackaroo (the latter is [? was] Australian slang for a new arrival from England to the bush: Jack + kangaroo) and know the circumstances in which it was coined, there are few ways to prove that a blend is a blend. Be that as it may be, canoodle is probably noodle with the prefix ca-. But kibosh (and this is the second and possibly fatal objection to Scott) deviates from all the other ki-/ka- words in that it has stress on ki- and that its i is long. (Incidentally, in Hebrew kibosh “eighteen pence” the first vowel is also short.)
Scott’s idea made no stir (this is a huge understatement), while the Hebrew conjecture was given a new lease on life. Again in Notes and Queries (October 4, 1924, pp. 244-245) H. Loewe published his version of it. He also traced kibosh to Hebrew “eighteen pence” (spelled as two words), though he corrected the etymon to Khai-Bash. I’ll skip his explanation of the Hebrew word and quote only the end of the note in which he cites the popular phrase “We are going to put the Kaibosh on the Kaiser”: “The metaphor comes from the small auctions in Petticoat Lane, where the bidding, for petty articles, rises in pence or even in halfpence. An eager purchaser, to cut the proceedings short will call out Khai Bash! And the article will promptly be knocked down to him. So, “to put the kaibosh” on anything comes to mean to settle it or give the coup de grâce.” If this is what really happened at those auctions, the only conclusion can be that the word kibosh had firmly established itself, but no new light is shed on its origin. Nor are we told why the eager purchaser, rather than the auctioneer, had the right to terminate the bidding and how such an exotic shout, allegedly meaning 18p., worked as a magic formula. Let us also not forget the senses “nonsense; fashionable stuff” and “Portland cement.” Loewe’s explanation has been repeated numberless times (or times out of number, as they used to say in the days of Queen Victoria).
Last week I mentioned the etymological monomaniac Charles MacKay, who derived every word he could from Scottish Gaelic. His work presents no interest, except for his surveys of earlier scholarship (all of which he rejected). But occasionally he guessed well. For example, he sought the origin of curmudgeon in Gaelic and was probably right. MacKay traced kibosh to the Scottish Gaelic exclamation (ejaculation) cia-baois “what idle nonsense! what indecency!” pronounced, as he says, ci-baosish. However, nothing points to Scotland as the place from which kibosh came, so that this ingenious conjecture remains unsubstantiated. Yet the Celtic hypothesis, like the Hebrew one, lived on, though it owes nothing to MacKay, whom no one read.
It was revived in a different form by Charles E. Funk. Funk informed his readers that he “was indebted to Padraic Colum, well-known Irish author,” for what he took to be the true explanation. Colum said (in a letter): “‘Kibosh,’ I believe, means ‘the cap of death’ and it is always used in that sense—‘He put the kibosh on it.’ In Irish it could be written ‘cie bais’—the last word pronounced ‘bosh,’ the genitive of ‘bas’ death.” This episode is characteristic: someone who has not studied the etymology of a word offers a far-fetched derivation; another person, who cannot judge whether this etymology is right, supports it, and popular books copy and develop the idea. Endless repetition begins to look like a consensus. True, the only citation of kibosh (dated 1884) in Joseph Wright’s English Dialect Dictionary is from Ireland, but this is no proof of the word’s Irish origin, and Bernard Share does not indicate what research stands behind his statement (in Slangauge: A Dictionary of Slang and Colloquial English in Ireland) that kibosh possibly goes back to Irish caipín báis ‘cap of death’, or ‘pitch cap’, as employed by British forces against 1798 insurgents. Evidently, in Irish this idiom never existed. Nor do the slangy connotations of kibosh go well with the grim context Share provided. And once again we should remember that kibosh can mean three other things.
The number of fanciful etymologies of kibosh is rather great. Those interested in them will find a long list in Leo Rosten’s The Joys of Yiddish (where, I am sorry to say, the author’s own improbable guess is thrown into the bargain) and a shorter one in Michael Quinion’s Ballyhoo, Buckaroo, and Spuds. Given the facts at our disposal, we may conclude that Hebrew kibosh certainly and the Irish phrase most likely has nothing to do with the English word, whatever the native speakers of Hebrew/Yiddish or Irish may have said about the problem. It is also unlikely that kibosh “finish; nonsense; ‘stuff’,” and “Portland cement” go to three or four different etymons. The most natural starting point would be a (foreign?) technical term for “cement.” Sculptors would put the kibosh on their work; the result would be “the proper kibosh”; hence perhaps “stuff” and ironically “nonsense,” not inconceivably under the influence of bosh. The etymology of terms sculptors and architects employ is sometimes unexpectedly obscure.
Anatoly 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 firstname.lastname@example.org; he’ll do his best to avoid responding with “origin unknown.”