An 1850 cartoon of Jenny Lind
outside P. T. Barnum
's New American Museum, New York City, 1850, captioned as a "Panorama of Humbug".
Humbug is a person or thing that tricks or deceives or talks or behaves in a way that is deceptive, dishonest, false, or insincere, often a hoax or in jest.  While the term was first described in 1751 as student slang, its etymology is unknown. 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 Britain, the term is also used for certain types of candy.
In modern usage, the word is most associated with Ebenezer Scrooge, a character created by Charles Dickens. 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, where the wizard himself describes himself as "just a humbug".
P. T. Barnum 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 and theatre manager Jenny Lind to America, just outside the showplace of P. T. Barnum, the New American Museum, in 1850.
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!"
The word has existed in many 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:
- Charles Godfrey Leland mentions the idea that the word could be derived from the Norse 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. From the other Scandinavian languages based on Old Norse, there is húm in Icelandic which means 'twilight', hómi in Faeroese which means 'unclear', and humi in Old Swedish 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, 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 Bugge (of which the term bogey 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 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, 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, that makes a lot of noise. In Norton Juster's novel The Phantom Tollbooth, there is a large beetle-like insect known as the Humbug, who is hardly ever right about anything.
- ^ "Definition of Humbug". Merriam-Webster. http://www.merriam-webster.com/dictionary/humbug. Retrieved 3 August 2012.
- ^ Collins. "Definition of Humbug". Collin's Dictionary. http://www.collinsdictionary.com/dictionary/english/humbug. Retrieved 3 August 2012.
- ^ 
- ^ Horst Conrad. "www.etymologie.info". www.etymologie.info. http://www.etymologie.info/~e/u_/us-ismen_.html. Retrieved 2011-12-10.
- ^ "''Svenska Akademiens ordbok'' s.v. Humbug". G3.spraakdata.gu.se. http://g3.spraakdata.gu.se/saob/. Retrieved 2011-12-10.
- ^ "''Dictionnaire de la Langue Francais'', Littré 1872-1877". Francois.gannaz.free.fr. http://francois.gannaz.free.fr/Littre/xmlittre.php?rand=&requete=humbug. Retrieved 2011-12-10.
- ^ "Wiktionary". En.wiktionary.org. http://en.wiktionary.org/wiki/humbug#Hungarian. Retrieved 2011-12-10.
- ^ "humpuuki - Wiktionary". En.wiktionary.org. 2011-05-16. http://en.wiktionary.org/wiki/humpuuki#Wiktionary. Retrieved 2011-12-10.
- ^ "1911encyclopedia.org". 1911encyclopedia.org. 2006-08-25. http://www.1911encyclopedia.org/Humbug. Retrieved 2011-12-10.
- ^ Charles Godfrey Leland, Gypsy Sorcery and Fortune Telling , Chapter X of The Haunts, Homes, and Habits of Witches in The South Slavic Lands--Bogeys and Humbugs
- ^ "''Svenska Akademiens ordbok'' s.v. Hum". G3.spraakdata.gu.se. http://g3.spraakdata.gu.se/saob/. Retrieved 2011-12-10.
- ^ "''Svenska Akademiens ordbok'' s.v. Hymla". G3.spraakdata.gu.se. http://g3.spraakdata.gu.se/saob/. Retrieved 2011-12-10.
- ^ "''Dictionary of the Vulgar Tongue''". http://www.gutenberg.org/dirs/etext04/dcvgr10.txt. Retrieved 2011-12-10.
- ^ a b "Online Etymology Dictionary". Etymonline.com. http://www.etymonline.com/index.php?term=bug. Retrieved 2011-12-10.
- ^ 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
- ^ Merriam-Webster's collegiate dictionary, 11th edition, Merriam-Webster, 2003, ISBN 978-0-87779-809-5, page 162
- ^ The Merriam-Webster new book of word histories, Merriam-Webster, 1991, ISBN 978-0-87779-603-9, page 71
- ^ 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
- ^ 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
- ^ 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
- ^ 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
- ^ "1911 Encyclopedia s.v. Humbug". 1911encyclopedia.org. http://www.1911encyclopedia.org/Encyclopedia. Retrieved 2011-12-10.
- ^ "Factmonster". Factmonster. http://www.factmonster.com/dictionary/brewers/humbug.html. Retrieved 2011-12-10.
- ^ a b "1911 Encyclopedia". 1911 Encyclopedia. 2006-08-25. http://www.1911encyclopedia.org/Humbug. Retrieved 2011-12-10.
- ^ "word-detective". word-detective. 2004-01-25. http://www.word-detective.com/012504.html#humbug. Retrieved 2011-12-10.