At some point in the Christmas holiday season someone, quite probably my Phil, was heard to say, “Humbug! Humbug!” One of the grandchildren then remarked that she thought a humbug was a kind of sweet. Yes, indeed. Why, she went on to ponder, is it called a humbug. It did spring to mind that maybe, humbugs being striped, they were so called because of similarity to bees, a bug that hums, well, after a fashion. OK, so it’s a little farfetched but there you go.
The upshot of this discussion was that eventually I got around to googling “humbug”. This is the kind of anorak-inspired thing you do if you’ve spent just about the whole of your life learning and teaching foreign languages. It may well be a form of madness but, if so, it’s a fairly harmless one.
Anyway, it seems that “humbug” first appeared in student slang in 1751, originally meaning “hoax” or “jest”. It also came to mean “nonsense” or “gibberish” and can be used to indicate a fraud or imposter. Charles Dickens helped to spread the use of the word by putting it into the mouth of Ebenezer Scrooge in “A Christmas Carol”, of course.
According to one source the word also exists in German, Swedish, Hungarian, Finn and French, but the online dictionary only confirms this for German and Dutch, giving me “fumiste” for the French translation.
So where does it come from? In Old Norse, “hum” meant night or shadow, while “bugge” was a kind of bogeyman. In Old English, to “hum” meant to deceive. So that’s one possibility.
There was a suggestion that it was derived from “Hamburg” as false coins were minted there and shipped to England during the Napoleonic wars, presumably to destabilise the economy. However, this etymology is dismissed as inaccurate because the word had already appeared in print fifty years before the aforementioned wars occurred.
I think my favourite is the idea that it came from the Italian “uomo bugiardo” which means “lying man”. Apparently there was a good deal of Italian influence on medieval English; after all a fair few of Shakespeare’s plays were based on Italian stories.
There was even on source that said it refers to a small humming insect: something small and unimportant that makes a lot of noise. So maybe the granddaughter and I were not so far out.
I also liked the Google source that simply said, “1751, student slang, “trick, jest, hoax”, also as a verb of unknown origin. A vogue word in the early 1750s, its origin was a subject of much whimsical speculation even then.”
There we are: “whimsical speculation”!!!
Words seem to have been in the news quite a lot recently, with footballers being reprimanded for insulting each other and football fans upsetting players by calling them insulting names and politicians getting into trouble for tweeting stuff that they really should have thought twice about.
In the Observer at the weekend, journalist Miranda Sawyer spoke to young people about language that they see or don’t see as insulting. One young man had to have the term “mong” explained to him as he couldn’t see why it was upsetting. This is because an earlier stage of political correctness stopped people referring to Down’s Syndrome children as “Mongols” or “mongoloid”.
And then some of the young people interviewed found it difficult to see why it might be wrong to use “gay” as a generally derogatory term if you thought something was no good.
The general consensus though was that it doesn’t really matter if you use insulting terns among your friends provided, of course, you don’t mean them in an insulting way. So one young man declared he would tell his friends, both black and white, “You are my nigger”, but in no way could he accept anyone from outside his circle referring to him in that way. Everything comes down to perceptions in the end.
It doesn’t stop me, though, from being offended when I hear loud young women on the train liberally spattering their conversation with “f***ing”, as if that were the only adjective that could be used. It sounds like a lack of imagination on their part.
Mind you, it’s beginning to sound as though I am turning into a grumpy old person. Heaven forbid that!!!