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See also: Humbug


Humbugs (sense 5) with their traditional dark brown and off-white stripes


Origin unknown; the Oxford English Dictionary (OED) states that “the facts as to its origin appear to have been lost, even before the word became common enough to excite attention”.[1] It has been suggested that the word possibly derives from hummer ((slang) An obvious lie), or from hum ((dialectal and slang) to cajole; delude; impose on) + bug (a goblin, a spectre). In his Slang Dictionary (1872), English bibliophile and publisher John Camden Hotten (1832–1873) suggested a link to the name of the German city of Hamburg, “from which town so many false bulletins and reports came during the war in the last century”.[2]

Hotten also said he had traced the earliest occurrence of the word to the title page of Ferdinando Killigrew’s book The Universal Jester (see quotations), which he dated to about 1735–1740.[2] This dating has therefore been adopted by other dictionaries. However, the OED dates the word to about 1750, as the earliest edition of Killigrew’s work has been dated to 1754.[1]



humbug (countable and uncountable, plural humbugs)

  1. (countable, slang) A hoax, jest, or prank.
    • 1754, Ferdinando Killigrew, The Universal Jester: or, A Pocket Companion for the Wits, London: [] R. Whitworth, []; J. Warcus, []; R. Richards, []; W. Mynors, []; and W. Heard, [], OCLC 642524111, title page:
      The universal jester: or, a pocket companion for the wits. Being a choice collection of merry conceits, facetious Drolleries, humorous Waggeries, smart Repartees, pleasant Jokes, Clenchers, Closures, Bon Mots, and Humbugs; comic Stories, notable Puns, witty Quibbles, and ridiculous Bulls. To which are added, Mr. Puzzlewit's gimcracks ; or, A long String of out-o'th'-way Conundrums, diverting Rebusses, poignant Epigrams, odd and uncommon Epitaphs, &c. &c. All calculated to promote inoffensive Mirth, and divert good Company with Elegance and Taste. Containing more in Number, and greater Variety, than any Book of the Kind yet published. Humbly inscribed to the choice spirits of the age. By Ferdinando Killigrew, Esq.
    • 1772 November, “A Short Dissertation on the Modern Art of Humbugging”, in The Covent-Garden Magazine; or, Amorous Repository: [], volume I, London: [] G. Allen, [], OCLC 645711122, pages 175–176:
      The profeſſor of the modern Humbugg, for ſuch is the polite name of this qualification, muſt either have from nature an unalterable countenance, or from art a power of commanding all its ſucceſſive variations, and preſerving it inviolably in each, as long as the present ſituation of the caſe renders it neceſſary: he muſt have a head full of imagination, and a heart empty of every trace of candor and humanity.
  2. (countable, slang) A fraud or sham; (uncountable) hypocrisy.
    • 1822 August, “On Humbug, Pro and Con—and the Art of Puffing”, in [J. S. Boone], editor, The Council of Ten, volume I, number III, London: [] Thomas Wilkie, [], OCLC 15101686, page 327:
      Look at the affairs of nations on the widest scale—look at their intercourse with each other—look at the manifestoes, by which war is declared—look at the treaties, by which peace is restored—look at the professions of kings, or popes, or generals, or ministers. Is not cant, humbug, hypocrisy, the staple of them all? What is modern diplomacy, but a system of duplicity and deceit?
    • 1840 August 29, “C.”, “Humbug”, in George Petrie, editor, The Irish Penny Journal. [], volume I, number 9, Dublin: [] Gunn and Cameron, [], published 1841, OCLC 605070893, page 67, column 1:
      What is the civility of the landlord and his waiters but humbug? What the smirking, smiling, ducking and bowing of the shopkeeper, but humbug? What his sweet and gentle "yes, sirs," and "no, sirs," and "proud to serve you, sirs," but humbug? You are not goose enough to believe for a moment that he is serious, that he has either the least regard or respect for you.
    • 1845, J[oseph] H. Bagg, “Magnetism as More Particularly Applied to Man, or What is Commonly Called Animal Magnetism, Clairvoyance, Catalepsy, Palsy, &c.”, in Bagg on Magnetism, or The Doctrine of Equilibrium: [], Detroit, Mich.: Bagg and Harmon, [], OCLC 565269669, pages 170–171:
      Many times a whole audience will not only be crowded into a small room, but are noisy disbelievers, call it all a humbug, distract the mind of the magnetizer, and added to these, absolutely outwill the magnetizer, in their wish to bring odium upon the science, and carry their points and gain their ends.
    • 2008, Todd Nathan Thompson, “‘Satire upon All of Us’: The Self-made Man as Confidence Man in P. T. Barnum’s America”, in Modest Proposals: American Satire and Political Change from Franklin to Lincoln (unpublished Ph.D. in English dissertation), Chicago, Ill.: University of Illinois in Chicago, OCLC 262556595, page 215:
      [Phineas Taylor] Barnum turned profits detecting humbug, staging humbugs, and in authoring books that present him as a humbug. In each case he operated by aestheticizing humbug: in writing tongue-in-cheek "reform" literature about avoiding humbug, in creating narratives or mythologies to advertise his own humbugs, and in celebrating in prose his own ability to balance contradictory roles.
  3. (countable, slang) A cheat, fraudster, or hypocrite.
    • 1877, Anna Sewell, “A Humbug!”, in Black Beauty: [], London: Jarrold and Sons, [], OCLC 228733457, page 148:
      [I]n a few days my new groom came. He was a tall, good-looking fellow enough; but if ever there was a humbug in the shape of a groom, Alfred Smirk was the man. He was very civil to me, and never used me ill; in fact, he did a great deal of stroking and patting when his master was there to see it. [] [B]ut as to cleaning my feet, or looking to my shoes, or grooming me thoroughly, he thought no more of that than if I had been a cow.
    • 1900 May 17, L[yman] Frank Baum, “15. The Discovery of Oz, the Terrible”, in The Wonderful Wizard of Oz, Chicago, Ill.; New York, N.Y.: Geo[rge] M. Hill Co., OCLC 297099816, page 184:
      “Hush, my dear,” he said. “Don’t speak so loud, or you will be overheard—and I should be ruined. I’m supposed to be a Great Wizard.” “And aren’t you?” she asked. “Not a bit of it, my dear; I’m just a common man.” “You’re more than that,” said the Scarecrow, in a grieved tone; “you’re a humbug.” “Exactly so!” declared the little man.
    • 1901–1903, [George] Bernard Shaw, Man and Superman. A Comedy and a Philosophy, Westminster [London]: Archibald Constable & Co., published 1903, OCLC 899619, Act III, pages 78–79:
      He means that he has sold out to the parliamentary humbugs and the bourgeoisie. Compromise! that is his faith.
    • 1912, Arthur Conan Doyle, “‘‘To-morrow We Disappear into the Unknown’’”, in The Lost World [], London; New York, N.Y.: Hodder and Stoughton, OCLC 1029993343, page 104:
      "It is an open admission," he cried. "What more do you want? The fellow is a self-confessed humbug. We have only to return home and report him as the brazen imposter that he is."
  4. (uncountable, slang) Nonsense.
    • 1992, Nina Bawden, chapter 3, in Humbug, New York, N.Y.: Clarion Books, Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, →ISBN, page 17:
      When they had gone, Ma Potter opened her eyes. She said, "Pay no attention, child. Don't upset yourself. Just humbug, that's all." / "What do you mean?" Cora whispered. [] "You mean, telling lies?" / "Not altogether. Humbuggery is what people talk without thinking. Lies are deliberate. Are you a clever child?"
  5. (countable, Britain) A type of hard sweet (candy), usually peppermint flavoured with a striped pattern.
    • 2003, Michael Morpurgo, “How to Make Old-fashioned Peppermint Humbugs”, in Private Peaceful, London: HarperCollins, →ISBN:
      Humbugs are sweet, hard candies with a mild peppermint flavor, which are traditionally made in small batches by hand. [] Humbugs often feature the old-fashioned peppermint-stripe coloration, dark brown and off-white; are usually oblong or square (about the size of your thumb); []
    • 2011, Jo Cotterill, “White Clover”, in Sweet Hearts (Forget Me Not), London: Red Fox, →ISBN, page 216:
      At half past five in the evening, Anpa sat up in bed and said he'd like a packet of humbugs. Nick and Kate looked at each other and grinned, and Nick immediately picked up his jacket and said he'd go and find some. 'Is he allowed them?' Kate whispered so that Anpa couldn't hear her. / Nick shrugged. 'Can't see how humbugs will do any harm. But I might get soft mints instead so he doesn't choke on them.'
  6. (US, countable, slang) Anything complicated, offensive, troublesome, unpleasant or worrying; a misunderstanding, especially if trivial.
  7. (US, countable, African American Vernacular, slang) A fight.
    • 1969, Ruth Shonle Cavan, editor, Readings in Juvenile Delinquency, 2nd edition, Philadelphia, Pa.; New York, N.Y.: J. B. Lippincott & Co., OCLC 715599768, pages 225–226:
      Yet, for all the ferocity, the fights were short-lived. Every group except the Vice Kings, who had been most threatened, were brought under control fairly quickly and stayed to see the basketball game—only the Vice Kings missed it. Moreover, despite talk of retaliation, the humbug was self-contained; []
    • 1972, Thomas Kochman, editor, Rappin’ and Stylin’ Out: Communication in Urban Black America, Urbana, Ill.: University of Illinois Press, →ISBN, page 364:
      Vice Lords refer to all kinds of fighting as humbugging. A fight between a boy and his father, a fight between males and females, a fight between rival clubs, or any other kind of fight can be referred to as a humbug. However, Vice Lords further distinguish between kinds of fighting. Gangbanging refers only to fights between enemy clubs. When individuals wish to distinguish between fights involving two individuals and fights involving rival clubs, they refer to the former as humbugs and the latter as gangbangs.
    • 1990, James F. Short, Delinquency and Society (Prentice-Hall Foundations of Modern Sociology Series), Englewood Cliffs, N.J.: Prentice-Hall, →ISBN, pages 197 and 198:
      [page 197] A "humbug" (gang fight) that took place at the Chicago Amphitheater involved both threats to the newly acquired adult status of a gang leader (he had just turned 21 years old) and to group identity among rival gangs. [] [page 198] The humbug provided grist for the mill of individual and group status within the status universe of fighting gangs. In the months that followed no more humbugging between any of these gangs took place, however.
    • 1992, David Dawley, “Whenever It Go Down”, in A Nation of Lords: The Autobiography of the Vice Lords, 2nd edition, Long Grove, Ill.: Waveland Press, →ISBN, page 39:
      Actually we were just looking for something to do because we didn't have any reason to keep out of trouble. All we could do was just drink scrap iron, smoke reefers, and look for a humbug. There was nothing to occupy our minds.
  8. (countable, US, African American Vernacular, slang, dated) A gang.
  9. (countable, US, crime, slang) A false arrest on trumped-up charges.
    • 2009, Joseph Wambaugh, Hollywood Moon: A Novel, New York, N.Y.: Little, Brown and Company, →ISBN:
      "Let's talk first, Mr. Brown," Sergeant Murillo said. "Do you remember telling these officers you were going to sue them for false arrest?" / Bootsie Brown paused with the cookie halfway to his lips and said, "I mighta. It was a humbug arrest. That's why they let me and Axel outta jail in forty-eight hours. We was jist tryin' to have an Irish wake for good old Coleman."
    • 2013, Sparky McLaughlin, “‘Et Tu (Fill in Name Here) …’”, in Damned from Memory, Swedesboro, N.J.: Damned from Memory LLC, BookBaby, →ISBN:
      I pulled the initial investigation report. I see who arrested him and I knew it was a humbug. A humbug is a bullshit arrest. No Police Officer likes to believe they exist; however sometimes it was a fact of life.
  10. (countable, slang, perhaps by extension) The piglet of the wild boar.
    • 2018 November 24, The Times, London, page 3:
      Many have been cross-bred with commercial breeds such as Tamworths, producing a "superbreed" of fertile boar, which were "more robust", and could produce five or six young. known as humbugs, per litter.


  • Polish: humbug (perhaps in part through German)
  • German: Humbug
  • Hungarian: humbug (perhaps in part through German)




  1. (slang) Balderdash!, nonsense!, rubbish!
    • 1841 October, “Ambition. A Farce.”, in Blackwood's Edinburgh Magazine, volume L, number CCCXII, Edinburgh; London: William Blackwood & Sons, OCLC 702604824, page 438:
      [Mr. Clarendon] Steady. Aristotle laughs at you. / [Mr. Algernon Sidney] Twist. He's an impertinent fellow! I say again—Liberty! freedom! glory! / Steady. Humbug! humbug! humbug!
    • 1843 December 19, Charles Dickens, “Stave I. Marley’s Ghost.”, in A Christmas Carol. In Prose. Being a Ghost Story of Christmas, London: Chapman & Hall, [], OCLC 55746801, pages 6–7:
      "A Merry Christmas, uncle! God save you!" cried a cheerful voice. It was the voice of Scrooge’s nephew, who came upon him so quickly that this was the first intimation he had of his approach. / "Bah!" said Scrooge, "Humbug!" / [] "Christmas a humbug, uncle!" said Scrooge's nephew. "You don't mean that, I am sure." / "I do," said Scrooge. "Merry Christmas! what right have you to be merry? what reason have you to be merry? You're poor enough." / "Come, then," returned the nephew gaily. "What right have you to be dismal? what reason have you to be morose? You're rich enough." / Scrooge having no better answer ready on the spur of the moment, said, "Bah!" again; and followed it up with "Humbug."
    • 1910, Guy de Maupassant, “Magnetism”, in Ball-of-Tallow and Short Stories, New York, N.Y.: The Pearson Publishing Co., OCLC 4175409, page 302:
      Then each mentioned some fact, some fantastic presentiment, some instance of souls communicating with each other across space, or some case of the secret influence of one being over another. They asserted and maintained that these things had actually occurred, while the sceptic angrily repeated: / "Humbug! humbug! humbug!"


humbug (third-person singular simple present humbugs, present participle humbugging, simple past and past participle humbugged)

  1. (slang) To play a trick on someone, to cheat, to swindle, to deceive.
    • 1796, “The Nine Days Wonder! or the Humbug of Butcher Row. Sung by Mr. Dighton.”, in Songs, &c. in The Spirit of the Grotto. Or an Hour at Weybridge. A Musical Spectacle, as Performed at Sadler's Wells, [London?]: [s.n.], OCLC 931350444, page 12:
      Here's a Humbugger come, / Will prove the reſt nothing at all, / 'Tis a Jobber, a Factor, / A damn'd Corn Contractor, / Who makes all our Loaves be ſo ſmall; [] And may all ſuch elves, / Be thus Humbugg'd themſelves, / Who thus are Humbugging the poor: / And as ſure as the Bone makes the Cleaver to ſound, / Humbugging, Humbugging goes all the world round.
    • 1810, Henry Brooke, “Epilogue on Humbugging”, in Samuel Johnson and Alexander Chalmers, The Works of the English Poets, from Chaucer to Cowper; including the Series Edited, with Prefaces, Biographical and Critical, by Dr. Samuel Johnson: And the Most Approved Translations. The Additional Lives by Alexander Chalmers, F.S.A. In Twenty-one Volumes, volume XVII (Glover, Whitehead, Jago, Brooke, Scott, Mickle, Jenyns), London: Printed for J[ames] Johnson; [et al.], OCLC 460902446, page 428:
      Of all trades and arts in repute or possession, / Humbugging is held the most ancient profession. / Twixt nations, and parties, and state politicians, / Prim shopkeepers, jobbers, smooth lawyers, physicians, / Of worth and of wisdom the trial and test / Is—mark ye, my friends!—who shall humbug the best.
    • 1873 May 1, John F. French, “Farming—Present and Prospective”, in James O. Adams, New Hampshire Agriculture. Third Annual Report of the Board of Agriculture to His Excellency the Governor, Nashua, N.H.: Orren C. Moore, state printer, OCLC 659327991, pages 204–205:
      Then again farmers are shamefully, lamentably, sometimes almost ruinously humbugged. All classes it is true are humbugged to a certain extent, but farmers in my view suffer themselves to be fooled and swindled in this respect to a greater degree than any other class in the community. They are humbugged in seeds, humbugged in manures, humbugged in agricultural implements, humbugged by agents, humbugged by patent peddlers, humbugged by store-keepers, humbugged by politicians, humbugged by corporations, till finally, some of them are in danger of becoming little less than humbugs themselves.
    • 1902, Charles Austin Bates, The Art and Literature of Business, New York, N.Y.: Bates Pub. Co., OCLC 39735963, page 165:
      A theatrical man or showman has to humbug people. If he doesn't humbug them, they are humbugged.
    • 2014, Bronwyn Naylor; Heron Loban, “ACCC v Keshow [2005] FCA 558; Unconscionability, Education and Indigenous Women; Judgment”, in Heather Douglas, Francesca Bartlett, Trish Luker, and Rosemary Hunter, editors, Australian Feminist Judgments: Righting and Rewriting Law, Oxford; Portland, Or.: Hart Publishing, →ISBN, page 186:
      Humbugging is an unflattering term that relates to demanding or pressuring behaviour mainly in relation to money. [] Muriel Palmer said the respondent was humbugging her. Rosina Dickson said the respondent came up to her and asked her if she had any children and was "sort of" humbugging her.
  2. (US, African American Vernacular, slang) To fight; to act tough.
  3. (slang, obsolete) To waste time talking.

Usage notes[edit]

The spellings humbuging and humbuged exist, but are not nearly so common as humbugging and humbugged.

Derived terms[edit]


  1. 1.0 1.1 humbug, n. and adj.”, in OED Online Paid subscription required, Oxford, Oxfordshire: Oxford University Press, 1899
  2. 2.0 2.1 John Camden Hotten (1864) , “humbug”, in The Slang Dictionary; or, The Vulgar Words, Street Phrases, and “Fast” Expressions of High and Low Society. Many with Their Etymology, and a Few with Their History Traced, London: John Camden Hotten, Piccadilly, OCLC 222807583, page 157.

Further reading[edit]



From English.


  • IPA(key): [ˈhumbuɡ]
  • Hyphenation: hum‧bug
  • Rhymes: -uɡ


humbug (plural humbugok)

  1. humbug


Inflection (stem in -o-, back harmony)
singular plural
nominative humbug humbugok
accusative humbugot humbugokat
dative humbugnak humbugoknak
instrumental humbuggal humbugokkal
causal-final humbugért humbugokért
translative humbuggá humbugokká
terminative humbugig humbugokig
essive-formal humbugként humbugokként
inessive humbugban humbugokban
superessive humbugon humbugokon
adessive humbugnál humbugoknál
illative humbugba humbugokba
sublative humbugra humbugokra
allative humbughoz humbugokhoz
elative humbugból humbugokból
delative humbugról humbugokról
ablative humbugtól humbugoktól
possessive - singular
humbugé humbugoké
possessive - plural
humbugéi humbugokéi
Possessive forms of humbug
possessor single possession multiple possessions
1st person sing. humbugom humbugjaim
2nd person sing. humbugod humbugjaid
3rd person sing. humbugja humbugjai
1st person plural humbugunk humbugjaink
2nd person plural humbugotok humbugjaitok
3rd person plural humbugjuk humbugjaik



  1. humbug!