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We were discussing humbugs in the office the other day (principally arguing over whether the ones with brown stripes were real humbugs), so I looked up the etymology and found plenty of information about the origin of the word humbug to mean deception or dishonesty (see Wikipedia).

One might argue that in this context lots of explanations are the same as no explanations, but none of them mention the minty meaning. So I was wondering if anyone knew how a word that used to mean what is reported by the Online Etymology Dictionary also came to mean a black-and-white striped peppermint sweet:

1751, student slang, "trick, jest, hoax, deception," also as a verb, of unknown origin. A vogue word of the early 1750s; its origin was a subject of much whimsical speculation even then.

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blog.oup.com/2010/03/… – stacker Jan 26 '12 at 22:15
up vote 10 down vote accepted

The Glutton's Glossary by John Ayto says:

The use of the word humbug for a stripy peppermint-flavoured boiled sweet seems to date from the nineteenth century: the Oxford English Dictionary notes it as being 'remembered in common use in Gloucestershire' in the 1820s, while Elizabeth Gaskell in Sylvia's Lover's (1863) explained: 'He had provided himself with a paper of humbugs for the child — "humbugs" being the North-country term for certain lumps of toffy, well-flavoured with peppermint.'


It originally meant 'practical joke, hoax' rather than the present, more earnest 'hypocritical sham', and its application to an article of food may be of similar inspiration to trifle.

An 1876 Notes and Queries (the Victorian precursor to Stack Exchange) suggests an etymology:

The kind of sweetmeat called humbug can still be bought at Taunton. It is a thin, oval-shaped piece of toffee, with an almond in the middle, and is, I suspect, so called because, after sucking for a short time at the toffee, you suddenly find yourself come to an almond. H. F. BOYD.

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+1. Nice references. – Robusto Jan 26 '12 at 13:58
So the sweets were humbugging their consumers! Thank you. – Brian Hooper Jan 27 '12 at 12:32

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