For other uses, see Humbug (disambiguation).
"Bah! Humbug!" redirects here. For the character who says this, see Ebenezer Scrooge.
Look up humbug in Wiktionary, the free dictionary.
An 1850 cartoon of Jenny Lind outside P. T. Barnum's New American Museum, New York City, 1850, captioned as a "Panorama of Humbug".
Humbugging, or raising the Devil, 1800. Rowlandson’s humbugging depicts the public as a credulous simpleton being distracted by a display of “the miraculous,” the better to have his pockets picked.

A humbug is a person or object that behaves in a deceptive or dishonest way, often as a hoax or in jest.[1][2] The term was first described in 1751 as student slang, and recorded in 1840 as a "nautical phrase".[3] It is now also often used as an exclamation to mean nonsense or gibberish.

When referring to a person, a humbug means a fraud or impostor, implying an element of unjustified publicity and spectacle. In modern usage, the word is most associated with a character named Ebenezer Scrooge, created by Charles Dickens in a book called "A Christmas Carol". His famous reference to Christmas, "Bah! Humbug!", declaring Christmas to be a fraud, is commonly used in stage and television versions of A Christmas Carol and also appeared frequently in the original book. The word is also prominently used in The Wizard of Oz, in which the Scarecrow refers to the wizard as a humbug, and the wizard agrees.

Another use of the word was by John Collins Warren, a Harvard Medical School professor who worked at Massachusetts General Hospital. Dr. Warren performed the first public operation with the use of 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."[4]


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.[5]

There are many theories as to the origin of the term, none of which has been proven:

The word has been used outside of anglophone countries for well over a century. For instance, in Germany it has been known since the 1830s,[22] in Sweden since at least 1862,[23] in France since at least 1875,[24] in Hungary, and in Finland.


  1. "Definition of Humbug". Merriam-Webster. Retrieved 3 August 2012.
  2. Collins. "Definition of Humbug". Collin's Dictionary. Retrieved 3 August 2012.
  3. Dana, Richard Henry Jr. (1840). Two Years Before the Mast. When there is danger or necessity, or when he is well used, no one can work faster than he; but the instant he feels that he is kept at work for nothing, or, as the nautical phrase is, 'humbugged,' no sloth could make less headway.
  4. Bennett, William (1984). "The Genealogy of Mass General". American Heritage Magazine. 35 (6). Retrieved 2014-03-20.
  5. "". 2006-08-25. Retrieved 2011-12-10.
  6. Charles Godfrey Leland, Gypsy Sorcery and Fortune Telling [1891], Chapter X of The Haunts, Homes, and Habits of Witches in The South Slavic Lands--Bogeys and Humbugs
  7. "Svenska Akademiens ordbok s.v. Hum". Retrieved 2016-11-29.
  8. "'Svenska Akademiens ordbok s.v. Hymla". Retrieved 2016-11-29.
  9. "Dictionary of the Vulgar Tongue". Retrieved 2011-12-10.
  10. 1 2 "Online Etymology Dictionary". Retrieved 2011-12-10.
  11. Middle English Dictionary by Sherman M. Kuhn, Hans Kurath, Robert E. Lewis, University of Michigan Press, 1958, ISBN 978-0-472-01025-7, page 1212
  12. Merriam-Webster's collegiate dictionary, 11th edition, Merriam-Webster, 2003, ISBN 978-0-87779-809-5, page 162
  13. The Merriam-Webster new book of word histories, Merriam-Webster, 1991, ISBN 978-0-87779-603-9, page 71
  14. Metatony in Baltic, Volume 6 of Leiden studies in Indo-European by Rick Derksen, Rodopi, 1996, ISBN 90-5183-990-1, ISBN 978-90-5183-990-6, page 274
  15. Lexical reflections inspired by Slavonic *bog  : English bogey from a Slavonic root?, Brian Cooper 1, Department of Slavonic Studies, University of Cambridge, Correspondence to Department of Slavonic Studies, University of Cambridge, Sidgwick Avenue, Cambridge CB3 9DA
  16. Early Modern Northern English Lexis: A Literary Corpus-Based Study, Javier Ruano-Garcia, Peter Lang, 2010, ISBN 3-0343-0058-1, ISBN 978-3-0343-0058-2. pp. 242-243
  17. Studies in folk life, John Geraint Jenkins, Iorwerth Cyfeiliog Peate, Ayer Publishing, 1977,ISBN 0-405-10102-3, ISBN 978-0-405-10102-1. pp. 304
  18. "1911 Encyclopedia s.v. Humbug". Retrieved 2011-12-10.
  19. "Factmonster". Factmonster. Retrieved 2011-12-10.
  20. 1 2 "1911 Encyclopedia". 1911 Encyclopedia. 2006-08-25. Retrieved 2011-12-10.
  21. "word-detective". word-detective. 2004-01-25. Retrieved 2011-12-10.
  22. Horst Conrad. "". Retrieved 2011-12-10.
  23. "Svenska Akademiens ordbok s.v. Humbug". Retrieved 2016-11-29.
  24. "Dictionnaire de la Langue Francaise, Littré 1872-1877". Retrieved 2013-07-22.
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