"humbug" Definition

  1. an imposition, or a person who imposes upon others. A very expressive but slang word, synonymous at one time with HUM AND HAW. Lexicographers for a long time objected to the adoption of this term. Richardson uses it frequently to express the meaning of other words, but, strange to say, omits it in the alphabetical arrangement as unworthy of recognition! In the first edition of this work, 1785 was given as the earliest date at which the word could be found in a printed book. Since then HUMBUG has been traced half a century further back, on the title-page of a singular old jest-book—“_The Universal Jester_; or a pocket companion for the Wits: being a choice collection of merry conceits, facetious drolleries, &c., clenchers, closers, closures, bon-mots, and HUMBUGS,” by Ferdinando Killigrew. London, about 1735-40. The notorious Orator Henley was known to the mob as ORATOR HUMBUG. The fact may be learned from an illustration in that exceedingly curious little collection of _Caricatures_, published in 1757, many of which were sketched by Lord Bolingbroke—Horace Walpole filling in the names and explanations. Halliwell describes HUMBUG as “a person who hums,” and cites Dean Milles’s MS., which was written about 1760. In the last century, the game now known as double-dummy was termed HUMBUG. Lookup, a notorious gambler, was struck down by apoplexy when playing at this game. On the circumstance being reported to Foote, the wit said—“Ah, I always thought he would be HUMBUGGED out of the world at last!” It has been stated that the word is a corruption of Hamburgh, from which town so many false bulletins and reports came during the war in the last century. “Oh, that is _Hamburgh_ [or HUMBUG],” was the answer to any fresh piece of news which smacked of improbability. Grose mentions it in his Dictionary, 1785; and in a little printed squib, published in 1808, entitled _Bath Characters_, by T. Goosequill, HUMBUG is thus mentioned in a comical couplet on the title-page:— “Wee Thre Bath Deities bee, HUMBUG, Follie, and Varietee.” Gradually from this time the word began to assume a place in periodical literature, and in novels written by not over-precise authors. In the preface to a flat, and most likely unprofitable poem, entitled, _The Reign of HUMBUG, a Satire_, 8vo, 1836, the author thus apologizes for the use of the word:—“I have used the term HUMBUG to designate this principle [wretched sophistry of life generally], considering that, it is now adopted into our language as much as the words dunce, jockey, cheat, swindler, &c., which were formerly only colloquial terms.” A correspondent, who in a number of _Adversaria_ ingeniously traced bombast to the inflated Doctor Paracelsus Bombast, considers that HUMBUG may, in like manner, be derived from Homberg, the distinguished chemist of the court of the Duke of Orleans, who, according to the following passage from Bishop Berkeley’s _Siris_, was an ardent and successful seeker after the philosopher’s stone! “§194.—Of this there cannot be a better proof than the experiment of Monsieur Homberg, who made gold of mercury by introducing light into its pores, but at such trouble and expense that, I suppose, nobody will try the experiment for profit. By this injunction of light and mercury, both bodies became fixed, and produced a third different to either, to wit, real gold. For the truth of which fact I refer to the memoirs of the French Academy of Sciences.”—_Berkeley’s Works_, vol ii. p. 366 (Wright’s edition). Another derivation suggested is that of AMBAGE, a Latin word adopted into the English language _temp._ Charles I. (_see_ May’s translation of Lucan’s _Pharsalia_), and meaning conduct the reverse of straightforward. Again, in the (burlesque) _Loves of Hero and Leander_ (date 1642), we find “MUM-BUG, quoth he, ’twas known of yore,” a cant expression, no doubt, commanding a person to “shut up,” or hold his tongue, and evidently derived from the game of _mum-budget_ or _silence_, upon which Halliwell (_Dict. Arch_.) has descanted. AMBAGE is also used in the sense of “circumlocution.” “Without any long studie or tedious AMBAGE.”—_Puttenham_, _Art of Poesie_. “Umh! y’ are full of AMBAGE.”—_Decker’s Whore of Babylon_, 1607. “Thus from her cell Cumæan Sibyl sings Ambiguous AMBAGES, the cloyster rings With the shrill sound thereof, in most dark strains.” _Vicar’s Virgil_, 1632. De Quincey thus discourses upon the word:— “The word HUMBUG, for instance, rests upon a rich and comprehensive basis; it cannot be rendered adequately either by German or by Greek, the two richest of human languages; and without this expressive word we should all be disarmed for one great case, continually recurrent, of social enormity. A vast mass of villany, that cannot otherwise be reached by legal penalties, or brought within the rhetoric of scorn, would go at large with absolute impunity were it not through the stern Rhadamanthean aid of this virtuous and inexorable word.”—_Article on “Language.”_ The original collater of these notes purchased the collection of essays known as the _Connoisseur_ at the sale of Thackeray’s library. At the end of vol. i. he found a memorandum in the great humourist’s handwriting—“p. 108, ‘HUMBUG,’ a new-coined expression.” On referring to that page (in the 3rd edition, 1757) this paragraph was noted:— “The same conduct of keeping close to their ranks was observed at table, where the ladies seated themselves together. Their conversation was here also confined wholly to themselves, and seemed like the mysteries of the _Bona Dea_, in which men were forbidden to have any share. It was a continued laugh and whisper from the beginning to the end of dinner. A whole sentence was scarce ever spoken aloud. Single words, indeed, now and then broke forth; such as, odious, horrible, detestable, shocking, HUMBUG. This last new-coined expression, which is only to be found in the nonsensical vocabulary, sounds absurd and disagreeable whenever it is pronounced; but from the mouth of a lady it is ‘shocking,’ ‘detestable,’ ‘horrible,’ and ‘odious.’” The use of this term is almost universal; in California there is a town called Humbug Flat—a name which gives a significant hint of the acuteness of the first settler.

More About humbug

Position in the dictionary: 1723 of 4022 slang words.
Next words in the dictionary: humdrum, humming, hump, hump up, humpty-dumpty, hunch, hunks, hunky, hunter pitching, hurdy-gurdy
Previous words in the dictionary: humble pie, hum-box, hum and haw, hulky, hulk, hugger-mugger, huff, huey, hubble bubble, hoxter

The Slang Dictionary's Entry for humbug

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