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Humbug is an old term meaning hoax
A hoax is a deliberately fabricated falsehood made to masquerade as truth. It is distinguishable from errors in observation or judgment, or rumors, urban legends, pseudosciences or April Fools' Day events that are passed along in good faith by believers or as jokes.-Definition:The British...

 or jest. While the term was first described in 1751 as student slang
Slang is the use of informal words and expressions that are not considered standard in the speaker's language or dialect but are considered more acceptable when used socially. Slang is often to be found in areas of the lexicon that refer to things considered taboo...

, its etymology is unknown. Its present meaning as an exclamation is closer to 'nonsense
Nonsense is a communication, via speech, writing, or any other symbolic system, that lacks any coherent meaning. Sometimes in ordinary usage, nonsense is synonymous with absurdity or the ridiculous...

' or 'gibberish
Gibberish is a generic term in English for talking that sounds like speech, but carries no actual meaning. This meaning has also been extended to meaningless text or gobbledygook. The common theme in gibberish statements is a lack of literal sense, which can be described as a presence of nonsense...

', while as a noun, a humbug refers to a fraud
In criminal law, a fraud is an intentional deception made for personal gain or to damage another individual; the related adjective is fraudulent. The specific legal definition varies by legal jurisdiction. Fraud is a crime, and also a civil law violation...

 or impostor
An impostor or imposter is a person who pretends to be somebody else, often to try to gain financial or social advantages through social engineering, but just as often for purposes of espionage or law enforcement....

, implying an element of unjustified publicity and spectacle. The term is also used for certain types of candy
Humbug (sweet)
Humbugs are a traditional hard boiled sweet available in the United Kingdom, Ireland, Canada, Australia and New Zealand. They are usually flavoured with peppermint and striped in two different colours . They have a hard outside and a soft toffee centre...


P. T. Barnum
P. T. Barnum
Phineas Taylor Barnum was an American showman, businessman, scam artist and entertainer, remembered for promoting celebrated hoaxes and for founding the circus that became the Ringling Bros. and Barnum & Bailey Circus....

 was a master of humbug, creating public sensations and fascination with his masterful sense of publicity. Many of his promoted exhibitions were obvious fakes, but the paying public enjoyed viewing them, either to scoff or for the wonder of them. A famous humbug took place on the arrival of the actress/theatre manager Jenny Lind
Jenny Lind
Johanna Maria Lind , better known as Jenny Lind, was a Swedish opera singer, often known as the "Swedish Nightingale". One of the most highly regarded singers of the 19th century, she is known for her performances in soprano roles in opera in Sweden and across Europe, and for an extraordinarily...

 to America, just outside the showplace of P. T. Barnum, the New American Museum, in 1850 (etching, right).

One of the most famous uses of the word was by John Collins Warren
John Collins Warren
John Collins Warren , of Boston, was one of the most renowned American surgeons of the 19th century. In 1846 he gave permission to William T.G. Morton to provide ether anesthesia while Warren performed a minor surgical procedure...

, a Harvard Medical School
Harvard Medical School
Harvard Medical School is the graduate medical school of Harvard University. It is located in the Longwood Medical Area of the Mission Hill neighborhood of Boston, Massachusetts....

 professor who worked at Massachusetts General Hospital
Massachusetts General Hospital
Massachusetts General Hospital is a teaching hospital and biomedical research facility in the West End neighborhood of Boston, Massachusetts...

. Dr. Warren performed the first public operation with the use of ether
Ethers are a class of organic compounds that contain an ether group — an oxygen atom connected to two alkyl or aryl groups — of general formula R–O–R'. A typical example is the solvent and anesthetic diethyl ether, commonly referred to simply as "ether"...

 anesthesia, administered by William Thomas Green Morton, a dentist. To the stunned audience at the Massachusetts General Hospital, Dr. Warren declared, "Gentlemen, this is no humbug!"

In Norton Juster
Norton Juster
Norton Juster is an American architect and author. He is best known as an author of children's books, including The Phantom Tollbooth and The Dot and the Line.- Biography :...

's novel The Phantom Tollbooth
The Phantom Tollbooth
The Phantom Tollbooth is a children's adventure novel and modern fairy tale published in 1961, written by Norton Juster and illustrated by Jules Feiffer. It tells the story of a bored young boy named Milo who unexpectedly receives a magic tollbooth one afternoon and, having nothing better to do,...

, there is a large beetle-like insect known as the Humbug, who is hardly ever right about anything.

Recently, an Internet-based Telecom Analytics and Fraud Analysis service was launched, named "Humbug". According to the creators, they named the service "Humbug" in correspondence to the word's meaning.


It has also existed in many other countries, unconnected with the British Empire, for a long time. For instance, in Germany it has been known since the 1830s, in Sweden since at least 1862, in France since at least 1875, in Hungary, and in Finland.

The oldest known written uses of the word are in the book The Student (1750–1751), ii. 41, where it is called "a word very much in vogue with the people of taste and fashion," and in Ferdinando Killigrew's The Universal Jester, subtitled "a choice collection of many conceits ... bon-mots and humbugs" from 1754; as mentioned in Encyclopædia Britannica from 1911, which further refers to the New English Dictionary.

There are many theories as to the origin of the term, none of which have been proven yet:
  • Charles Godfrey Leland
    Charles Godfrey Leland
    Charles Godfrey Leland was an American humorist and folklorist, born in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania. He was educated at Princeton University and in Europe....

     mentions the idea that the word could be derived from the Norse
    Old Norse
    Old Norse is a North Germanic language that was spoken by inhabitants of Scandinavia and inhabitants of their overseas settlements during the Viking Age, until about 1300....

     word hum, meaning 'night' or 'shadow', and the word bugges (used in the Bible), a variant of bogey, meaning 'apparitions'. The Norse word hum mentioned, or hume, actually means 'dark air' in Old Norwegian
    Old Norwegian
    Old Norwegian refers to a group of Old Norse dialects spoken and written in Norway in the Middle Ages. They bridged the dialect continuum from Old East Norse to Old West Norse.-Old Norwegian vs Common Norse:...

    . From the other Scandinavian languages
    North Germanic languages
    The North Germanic languages or Scandinavian languages, the languages of Scandinavians, make up one of the three branches of the Germanic languages, a sub-family of the Indo-European languages, along with the West Germanic languages and the extinct East Germanic languages...

     based on Old Norse, there is húm in Icelandic
    Icelandic language
    Icelandic is a North Germanic language, the main language of Iceland. Its closest relative is Faroese.Icelandic is an Indo-European language belonging to the North Germanic or Nordic branch of the Germanic languages. Historically, it was the westernmost of the Indo-European languages prior to the...

     which means 'twilight', hómi in Faeroese which means 'unclear', and humi in Old Swedish
    Swedish language
    Swedish is a North Germanic language, spoken by approximately 10 million people, predominantly in Sweden and parts of Finland, especially along its coast and on the Åland islands. It is largely mutually intelligible with Norwegian and Danish...

     which means 'dark suspicion', documented back to 1541. From this word is also derived the Swedish verb hymla, still in use, which means 'to conceal, hide, not commit to the truth'.

  • According to the Dictionary of the Vulgar Tongue by Francis Grose
    Francis Grose
    Francis Grose was an English antiquary, draughtsman, and lexicographer. He was born at his father's house in Broad Street, St-Peter-le-Poer, London, son of a Swiss immigrant and jeweller, Francis Jacob Grose , and his wife, Anne , daughter of Thomas Bennett of Greenford in Middlesex...

    , 1731–1791, to hum in English indeed originally meant 'to deceive'. To combine this early medieval Scandinavian word with bugges from the English Bible of a later date may seem far-fetched. The word bug is derived from the Middle English
    Middle English
    Middle English is the stage in the history of the English language during the High and Late Middle Ages, or roughly during the four centuries between the late 11th and the late 15th century....

     Bugge (of which the term bogey
    A bogeyman is an amorphous imaginary being used by adults to frighten children into compliant behaviour...

    is also derived) which is in turn a cognate of the German word bögge (of which böggel-mann ("Goblin") is derived) and possibly the Norwegian dialect word bugge meaning "important man". The Welsh Bwg ("ghost") could also be connected, and was thought in the past to be the origin of the English term however more recent studies indicate that it is a borrowing from the much older Middle English word. Also, with bug meaning ghost or goblin, the use of the term applies in Dickens' novel about the Christmas ghosts. In Etym. Diet. of 1898, Walter Skeat also proposed a similar theory, although using contemporary versions of the words, where hum meant to murmur applause, and bug being a spectre.

  • It could also come from the Italian
    Italian language
    Italian is a Romance language spoken mainly in Europe: Italy, Switzerland, San Marino, Vatican City, by minorities in Malta, Monaco, Croatia, Slovenia, France, Libya, Eritrea, and Somalia, and by immigrant communities in the Americas and Australia...

     uomo bugiardo, which literally means 'lying man'. There was considerable Italian influence on English at the time (e.g. Shakespeare's numerous Italian-based plays).

  • Uim-bog is supposed to mean 'soft copper' in Irish
    Irish language
    Irish , also known as Irish Gaelic, is a Goidelic language of the Indo-European language family, originating in Ireland and historically spoken by the Irish people. Irish is now spoken as a first language by a minority of Irish people, as well as being a second language of a larger proportion of...

    , worthless money, but there is no evidence of a clear connection to the term.

  • The 1911 Encyclopædia Britannica also suggests that it is a form of "Hamburg", where false coins were minted and shipped to England during the Napoleonic wars, which is inaccurate as the Napoleonic wars were 50 years after the word first appeared in print.

  • A modern conception is that it actually refers to a humming bug—i.e. something small and inconsequential, such as a cricket
    Cricket (insect)
    Crickets, family Gryllidae , are insects somewhat related to grasshoppers, and more closely related to katydids or bush crickets . They have somewhat flattened bodies and long antennae. There are about 900 species of crickets...

    , that makes a lot of noise.