Saturday, August 01, 2020

'An Imposture, a Deception, Fraud, Sham'

“There has been of late considerable discussion as to the origin of this word.”

The noncommittal author of this observation is John Timbs (1801-1875), an English hybrid of Robert Ripley, Irving Wallace and the guy at the end of the bar with prodigal recall of baseball stats. His books are assemblages of what today are called “factoids” or trivia. The book quoted above is the wonderfully titled Things Not Generally Known (1857), subtitled A Popular Hand-Book of Facts Not Generally Accessible in Literature, History, and Science. I borrowed a 1968 reprint of the volume from the university library.

The word in question is politely emblematic of our age: humbug. Timbs notes that it appears in Fielding’s Amelia (1751), and suggests it may be a corruption of the Latin ambages, “detours.” His next etymological speculation is pure whimsy, perhaps a put-on: A Scotsman name Hume (presumably not David) succeeded to the Bogue or Boog estate which thus was named “Hume o’ the Bogue” or “Aum o’ the Bug.” Hume was “so inclined to the marvellous” (that is, a liar) that whenever someone said something unbelievable, “it became common to style it ‘a hum o’ the bug,” soon shortened to humbug. Timbs then suggests the word may have been coined from a worthless coinage used in Ireland under William III called oom-bug. Finally, he recalled a Mr. Humbog was “a celebrated Irish dancing-master.” None is convincing, all are amusing.
The OED defines humbug as “a thing which is not really what it pretends to be; an imposture, a deception, fraud, sham,” dating its appearance in English to 1750, but doesn’t even try to come up with a likely etymology: “Many guesses at the possible derivation of humbug have been made; but as with other and more recent words of similar introduction, the facts as to its origin appear to have been lost, even before the word became common enough to excite attention.”

One thinks first of Ebenezer Scrooge’s trademark dismissal: “Bah! Humbug!” Our blessed English is rich with synonyms and near-synonyms: claptrap, buncombe (a Mencken favorite), guff, balderdash, rot, blather (the title of a magazine edited by Flann O’Brien at University College, Dublin), malarkey, baloney, hooey, hogwash, poppycock, codswallop, bilge, bosh, tripe and, of course, the always useful bullshit. As an afterthought, Timbs’ entry in the Dictionary of National Biography comes as a sad tale of industry unrewarded:

“His works, which run to over a hundred and fifty volumes, are compilations of interesting facts gathered from every conceivable quarter, and relating to the most varied subjects. In recognition of his antiquarian labours he was elected a fellow of the Society of Antiquaries in 1854. He died in considerable poverty in London on 6 March 1875.”

1 comment:

Nige said...

Timbs had a kind of literary afterlife in Edith Sitwell's English Eccentrics, which draws heavily on his two-volume compendium English Eccentrics and Eccentricities (1868). Sitwell happily acknowledges her debt to this astonishingly energetic author.