It’s Christmas time, and that makes everyone happy… well, everyone except the Scrooges among us. And when one of those Scrooges says “Bah Humbug!” to you, don’t you wonder what they are really saying? Well, have no fear. We’ll dive in to this question together. (Yesterday’s usage of the phrase was in reference to the text adventure game by the name of Humbug. We’re talking about something a bit older here.)
Everyone knows the line. Ebenezer Scrooge made it famous. But “Bah Humbug!” existed before Dickens. According to the 1911 Classic Encyclopedia, based on the 11th Edition of the Encyclopedia Britannica, the term dates back to the mid-1700s:
According to the New English Dictionary, Ferdinando Killigrew’s The Universal Jester, which contains the word in its sub-title “a choice collection of many conceits … bonmots and humbugs,” was published in 1754, not, as is often stated, in 1735-1740. The principal passage in reference to the introduction of the word occurs in The Student, 1750-1751, ii. 41, where it is called “a word very much in vogue with the people of taste and fashion.”
But even then, the origin is unclear. It had apparently been popular already and was synonymous with a hoax or a sham. The Encyclopedia goes on to say:
The origin appears to have been unknown at that date. Skeat connects it (Etym. Diet. 1898) with “hum,” to murmur applause, hence flatter, trick, cajole, and “bug,” bogey, spectre, the word thus meaning a false alarm. Many fanciful conjectures have been made, e.g. from Irish uim-bog, soft copper, worthless as opposed to sterling money; from “Hamburg,” as the centre from which false coins came into England during the Napoleonic wars; and from the Italian uomo bugiardo, lying man.
And so there are many possibilities on where the phrase came from, but each points back to a meaning of deception. Which makes sense in the way that Scrooge used it in A Christmas Carol, as he thought that Christmas itself was a hoax or deception. In fact, this is not the only literary use of the phrase, as the venerable Wizard of Oz declares himself to be “just a humbug.”
So now you know. Though there are many possible sources for this phrase that was “very much in vogue with the people of taste and fashion”, there was only one primary meaning. And through time and many versions of Dicken’s A Christmas Carol, many have forgotten that the phrase meant anything at all, simply associating it was a bad attitude about Christmas. But not you. You know the truth.
So the next time some Scrooge says “Bah Humbug!” to you, just smile and tell them that Christmas is no hoax.