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“Humbug!” and Similar English Exclamations Posted by on Dec 12, 2019 in English Vocabulary, Literature, Speaking English

“Christmas a humbug, uncle!” said Scrooge’s nephew. “You don’t mean that, I am sure?”

Art by Arthur Rackham, Image courtesy of Pixabay, CCO

In the story A Christmas Carol, by Charles Dickens, when his nephew wishes him a “Merry Christmas”, Ebenezer Scrooge exclaims, “Bah! Humbug!” It is one of the enduring lines in English literature, known by nearly everyone. But, what exactly does it mean? And what is its origin?

It is understood to mean something deceptive, false, and nonsensical. The word dates at least as far back as the mid-18th century when a book, The Student, declared that it was, “…a word very much in vogue with the people of taste and fashion.” 100 years later, when the wealthy but miserly Scrooge utters it, fraudulent behavior to cheat money from the public was called humbuggery.

There are several theories regarding the origin of the word. It may come from the Italian uomo bugiardo, which means ‘lying man’. Or, dating back to the mid-18th century again, German newspapers were notorious for publishing false propaganda. Thus, the news from Hamburg was false and misleading, and Hamburg was playfully altered to humbug.

A humbug is also a candy, or boiled sweet in England, which has been popular for at least as long as 250 years. A humbug is an oval-shaped hard toffee with an almond in the center or a mint hard candy with a toffee filling. Either way, they offer a surprise for the unsuspecting. Scrooge may have meant that the Christmas season was no more worthwhile than a piece of candy that offers one thing but delivers something else.

In either case, humbug and words of a similar nature convey displeasure and mockery. You may prefer to say:

  • Balderdash
  • Baloney
  • Bunk
  • Drivel
  • Hogwash
  • Hooey
  • Poppycock (a particular favorite of mine)
  • Rubbish

I began researching this essay by examining the origin of the word malarkey. A US presidential candidate is calling the bus he travels on The “No Malarkey” Express. Malarkey, which is also synonymous with humbug, is commonly associated with politicians who speak nonsense to confuse the public. Many equate the word with the Irish since it was popularized by Thomas Aloysius Dorgan, an Irish-American cartoonist who started using it in his editorial cartoons of the 1920s. But, the word is actually Greek, μαλακία (malakía), which literally means bullshit.

So, when Scrooge says, “Bah! Humbug!” he probably has something in mind a little less sweet than candy.

 

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Comments:

  1. Laura:

    A very enjoyable article, well researched and informative. Thanks a lot!