We all remember Ebenezer Scrooge’s reaction to Christmas – “Bah!, Humbug!”
Humbug is a funny one – no one really knows where it comes from, but it appeared in English in about 1750 and became very popular within a very short time. The following is cited in the 1901 Oxford English Dictionary, taken from a 1750 edition of The Student,
“There is a word very much in vogue with the people of taste and fashion, which though it has not even the penumbra of a meaning, yet makes up the sum total of the wit, sense and judgement of the aforesaid people of taste and fashion! ... I will venture to affirm that this Humbug is neither an English word, nor a derivative from any other language. It is indeed a blackguard sound, made use of by most people of distinction! It is a fine, make-weight in conversation, and some great men deceive themselves so egregiously as to think they mean something by it.”
|The Connoisseur - May 2nd 1754|
In The Connoisseur for 1754-56, is a letter dated May 2nd 1754, which complains of various fashionable ladies whose habit is to giggle and whisper in huddled groups, going on to pronounce,
“A whole fentence was fcarce ever fpoken aloud. Single words, indeed, now and then broke forth; such as odious, horrible, deteftable, shocking, HUMBUG. This laft new-coined expreffion, which is only to be found in the nonfenfical vocabulary, founds abfurd and difagreeable, whenever it is pro-nounced; but from the mouth of a lady it is "fhocking, deteftable, horrible, and odious".”
One theory places the word as coming from the Irish words Uim Bog, pronounced Oom-Bug, and meaning ‘soft copper’ i.e. ‘worthless money’, used to describe the inferior coinage issued by James II and William III from the Dublin mint. Any cheap, scrap, old metal was used to cast the money, but it was worthless, and various expressions along the lines of, “That’s a piece of uim-bog (humbug)” were used. Conversely, the expression for ‘good money’ was ‘sterling’ – and that passed into the language as describing anything else of good quality; ‘a sterling example’, a sterling fellow’ or ‘of sterling worth’.
The meaning of a deception figures in the derivation from ‘Hamburg’. In his book The Funny Side of Physic (1874), A D Crabtre describes the practice of the middle-classes in London who, wishing to ape the continental tours of their aristocratic role models, in the summer would lock up the front of their houses and move into the back, and pretend that they had gone abroad, telling their friends or putting a card on the front door saying that they had ‘Gone to Hamburg’. The deception was so widespread, and so transparent, that ‘gone to Hamburg’ was used to mean ‘to deceive without malice’, and over time, like so many other words, through usage it was changed to ‘humbug’.
|A D Crabtre - The Funny Side of Physic - 1874|
A variation on this is that when Napoleon I blockaded Britain, news, rumours, propaganda and fake currency entered the country through the port of Hamburg, and the term derives from these various deceptions. This etymology appeared in the 1911 Encyclopaedia Britannica, but overlooks the fact that the word was already being used some fifty years prior to Napoleon’s blockade.
Yet another possibility is that the word derives from the Latin word ambage (pronounced with a hard g), which Littleton’s Latin Dictionary of 1703, defines as,
“A long circumstance of words, a tedious story to no purpose, a tale of Robin Hood; a compass or fetch about; preambles, impertinencies, intricate passages, turnings and windings; beating about the bush; dark, mysterious saying.”
The word lies at the root of our more familiar word ambiguous – ‘vague, unclear, indistinct’.
In Notes and Queries dated April 22nd 1876, a Mr Bower wrote,
“I remember about thirty years ago the word humbug was used in Gloucester-shire for a lozenge or sweetmeat, perhaps for some particular kind, but that I forget. It was a common expression, "Buy yourself a pennyworth of humbugs."I do not know whether this is a provincialism confined to part of the west of England, but I do not recollect to have heard the word so used anywhere else.”
It seems strange that Mr Bower’s 1830s ‘provincialism’ is perhaps the usage that is most common to our ears – a humbug is now universally a sweet, a minty toffee, a sweatmeat. And his letter drew replies from other correspondents to Notes and Queries, including this one from Mr James Dixon,
“The term is used in many parts of England, and particularly in Yorkshire and Lancashire. A Grassington man, who had made money by manufacturing the sweetmeat, was known in his native village as the humbug man! Humbugs are the same as bulls'-eyes and brandy-balls. One Matty (Martha) Preston, better known as Silver-heels, was a vendor of humbugs and toffy at Skipton. She died many years ago, at the great age of 104. She was baptized at Kirkby Malham-dale. Matty was a Gipsy or Potter, and for many years led a sad nomadic life, and was very drunken and dissipated. During her latter days she abandoned the camp life, and settled down in Skipton, where the sale of humbugs, &c., and a small parish allowance from Kirkby kept her tolerably steady and respectable. She used to say that during the rebellion of 1745, when she was "a pretty girl", she was seized and outraged by the revolutionary soldiers.”
|The Superb Sweetshop of Skipton|
Another option is that it comes from ‘a hum’ meaning ‘to fool, or a deception’, - as in this couplet from Peter Pindar’s A King and a Brickmaker,
“Full many a Trope from Bayonet and DrumHe threaten'd but, behold ! 'twas all a Hum.”
|Peter Pindar - A King and a Brickmaker|
So, a country bumpkin who frightens his neighbour with a turnip lantern and a white sheet, or the spirit-rapping medium, who treats his gullible client to a communication from the ‘other side’, most decidedly humbugs him; that is, ‘hums’ or deceives him with an imaginary spirit, or bug. Closely allied to this view is that ‘to hum’ meaning ‘to deceive’ follows a line of thinking that runs; a ‘hum’ is a noise made by a bee, a wind through a gap, a hollow noise. Something ‘humdrum’ is the hollow noise made by a drum, thence the hollow, droning, noisy thing itself. Hum, in this sense, is then added to ‘bug’ in its sense of a goblin, a bogey or bugbear. See this for bogies, bogles and boggarts.