Three recent theories of “kibosh”
By Anatoly Liberman
The phrase put the kibosh on surfaced in texts in the early thirties of the nineteenth century. For a long time etymologists have been trying to discover what kibosh means and where it came from. Hebrew, Arabic, Turkish, Gaelic Irish, and French have been explored for that purpose. I have twice discussed the word in this blog: on 19 May and on 28 July 2010. My modest aim was to call attention to the existing conjectures and sort them out. I also thought that the unexpected sense of kibosh “Portland cement” might furnish a clue to the sought-for etymology. No one supported my idea, and I am aware of three recent attempts to solve the puzzle. They belong to J. Peter Maher (who has thought about this word for a long time), Stephen Goranson, and David L. Gold. The first has not been published in full, but I have Professor Maher’s permission to use the versions he sent me (some of them exist on the Internet). Goranson’s work appeared in the periodical Comments on Etymology (2010) and Gold’s in Revista Alicantina de Estudios Ingleses (2011). I assume that neither Comments on Etymology nor Revista Alicantina has wide currency among the readers of this blog (however, Goranson’s hypothesis has been referenced by Michael Quinion in World Wide Words). It may therefore be useful for our readers to have a brief summary of the views of the three scholars side by side.
The earliest attestation of kibosh in the OED1 went back to Dickens’s kye-bosk (sic; 1836), but now several occurrences of the word in newspapers for 1834 are known. The predating per se would have had little value because if some word caught Dickens’s attention in 1835 or 1836, naturally, it must have existed earlier. Yet thanks to it we have proof that kibosh indeed emerged in “low” speech around 1830+. Whether it led an underground existence before it turned up in London slang cannot be decided. No etymology offered so far explained why kibosh conquered the capital when it did. What provoked the vogue for it? Its original pronunciation also remains a riddle. Even if we disregard Dickens’s -bosk with its strange -sk (a typo?), there is no certainty that the word was stressed on ki- or that the first vowel was “short” (as in sit, rather than as in site); the spelling kibbosh has also been recorded. At least one old woman who has participated in the Internet discussion said that she had always heard kibosh stressed on the second syllable. Whatever the origin of kibosh, it does resemble several homophones from various languages, and the coincidence, perhaps fortuitous, may have contributed to the word’s dissemination. With the present evidence at our disposal, the chance of unearthing the origin of kibosh is vanishingly small.
J. Peter Maher traces kibosh to French caboche “head (informal), noodle, nut” or rather the English verb cabosh (from French) “to cut off a stag’s head behind the ears (with no part of the neck in view) as a trophy.” Both the noun and the verb are common terms in heraldry. In French, caboche, an irreverent word for a human head, has also become a surname (Caboche). “It was the Cockneys of London who turned the aristocratic verb cabosh into a slang expression…. Likewise, a Cockney expression for the 1d./6p. coin was cabosh for the head of the monarch on coins.” Maher assumed that the story began with the verb and that the noun was formed from it. Usually etymologists derive the verb kibosh from the noun: “…we can say spin the ball or transform this into the style put a spin on the ball.” The development of kibosh was allegedly similar. Maher has no trust in the modern spelling of kibosh. In his opinion, i after k was an imperfect way of rendering the unstressed vowel of the first syllable, while “the spelling kye-bosh is based on mispronunciation of the troublesome spelling kibosh.” This etymology does not say how a term of heraldry reached “the Cockneys,” but, as noted, no one has explored the zigzags of the word’s history from a putative etymon to nineteenth-century slang. It is not even clear whether those zigzags can be reconstructed.
Stephen Goranson. The issue of Comments on Etymology (CoE, 2010), mentioned above, contains a mass of material on the early attestation of kibosh (correspondence among several people and Gerald Cohen, the journal’s editor) and Cohen’s summary. It turned out that another researcher (Matthew Little) had offered the same etymology as Goranson, but his contribution (also to CoE!) was not published in 2009. However, Goranson’s material is incomparably richer than Little’s. His etymon of kibosh is kurbash “a long whip made of hippopotamus or rhinoceros hide used as an instrument of punishment in parts of the Muslim world.” Like kibosh, kurbash has been attested in many forms. The phrase put the kibosh on seems to presuppose that a kibosh is an object that can be raised or at least “put on.” (As we have seen, this reasoning did not go far with Maher.) Judging by the attestation, there was some confusion between kurbash and kibosh, at least in texts. The difficulties Goranson faces are predictable. Once again we are tied to a form with initial stress. Even in an r-less dialect ur and i (short) do not look like interchangeable spelling variants of the same unstressed vowel (schwa), the more so as even koorbash and korbash occur. From this point of view kibosh with long i fares even worse. (Long i makes us admit that today’s most common pronunciation of kibosh is due to its spelling image or to what Maher calls mispronunciation—a strange development for slang.) The word is exotic, and accepting it as the etymon of kibosh presupposes the familiarity of the London street with it some time before 1842. These obstacles are hard to explain away. My last remark will be unconnected with kurbash. In commenting on my post, Goranson wrote that kibosh “Portland cement,” the gloss to which I attached special importance, turned out to be impossible to verify. I have not dealt with this question since 2010.
David L. Gold informs us that his article, though it takes up 56 pages of the journal issue, is a reduced variant of a more comprehensive study. It will probably become a book when he brings it out. At present it contains 33 pages of text, 23 compact pages of notes (many of them highly entertaining), and an extensive but incomplete bibliography that features, among others, 42 references to his own works, some still in manuscript. Gold’s starting point is the clogmakers’ term kibosh “iron bar about a foot long that, when hot, is used to soften and smooth leather” (another long and menacing object!). Putting the kibosh on a clog might perhaps mean “finish the work.” Or did the idiom at its inception have the sense “to make the thing fit” (a recorded sense)? If so, a stag’s head and a whip fade out of the picture. Knowing nothing about the technology of clog making, I cannot judge at what stage a kibosh was put on the leather. Let experts comment on this detail; I will stick to my last. Other than that, the spread of a technical expression from some locality to the rest of the country (according to Gold, kibosh originated in the north of England) and becoming part of the universally known slang is possible. The very word slang has such a history, and professional language is a common source of colloquialisms.
However, Gold has hardly drawn the curtain over the bothersome problem. The main handicap is partly familiar to us from the previous exposition. Kybosh “an iron bar,” even if native, is a rare word, to say the least, and the phrase put the kibosh (on) has not been recorded in any technical description of clog making. The origin of the word kibosh, regardless of the collocation in which it occurs, also remains obscure. In the past, clogmakers used the verb bosh, sometimes alternating with burnish, whose sense was “rub waxed and oiled leather with a hot iron bar.” Gold suggested tracing bosh to burnish, but this derivation is unlikely for phonetic reasons. If bosh is the second part of kibosh, ki will be unaccounted for. Long ago, Charles P.G. Scott, the etymologist for The Century Dictionary, considered the possibility of ki- being identical with ca-, as in caboodle, or ker-, as in kerfuffle. Gold supported this idea, though he gave no reference to Scott. I am afraid both of them were wrong. This prefix of Celtic or Dutch origin is never stressed (as far as I can judge, unlike Maher, neither Scott nor Gold doubted the initial stress in kibosh), never has the form ki- with long i (that is, the diphthong ai: here again, unlike Maher, Scott and Gold took long i for granted), and is never added to stylistically neutral words (though the stylistic register of bosh cannot be assessed). One might even suggest that bosh was “abstracted” from kibosh by way of back formation. I also wonder (and in this I am quite alone) why people said the kibosh rather than a kibosh. Is the definite article here of the same type as in spare the rod, spoil the child?
The word kibosh, English clogmakers’ lingo notwithstanding, looks foreign. But at the moment it is “stateless,” like so many other refugees of our time.
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 on the OUPblog each Wednesday. Send your etymology question to him care of firstname.lastname@example.org; he’ll do his best to avoid responding with “origin unknown.”
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Image credit: (1) Stag’s head erased (heraldry). Public domain via Wikimedia Commons. (2) The ‘Chicote’ or whip via NYPL Digital Library. (3) A pair of leather clogs by Vincent van Gogh/ Public domain via Wikimedia Commons.