This question reveals the history of the peppermint sweet's name, but does not elabourate on how the word was first formed.

At first glance, it would seem to be a portmanteau or the like just from the word "bug"; is this at all pertinent?

Etymonline is left clueless, quoting the OED who appear that have also given up:

1751, student slang, "trick, jest, hoax, imposition, deception," of unknown origin. Also appearing as a verb at the same time, "deceive by false pretext" (trans.). A vogue word of the early 1750s; its origin was a subject of much whimsical speculation even then. "[A]s 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" [OED].

I'm sure the users of EL&U can dig deeper and find out where exactly the word humbug comes from.

Can you build on "unknown origin"?

  • 4
    You seem to be unaware of the amount of research OED do before they admit defeat. Commented Dec 26, 2016 at 23:47
  • I'm voting to close this question as unanswerable definitively.
    – Jim
    Commented Dec 27, 2016 at 1:04
  • 1
    No certain etymology, but perhaps along the lines of hummer, humdinger, hum...referring to either good or bad things. Commented Dec 27, 2016 at 2:33
  • 4
    @Jim That's not a valid close-voting reason. Commented Dec 27, 2016 at 8:34
  • 3
    @Jim No. the word has a definite origin; that's not opinion but fact. The fact that we may not be able to unearth what that origin is doesn't make the question itself opinion-based—just one with a definite but unavailable answer. “We don't know for sure” is a valid answer, as is “We don't know, but here are some fact-based arguments regarding the likelihood of the possible answers”. Commented Dec 27, 2016 at 16:39

1 Answer 1


One thing you can do with terms with unknown origin is to consider all possible sources. Here is a list of the more common theories about humbug etymology;

Humbug, from (maps.thefullwiki.org):

  • It has also existed in many other 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 French since at least 1875, in Hungarian,, Russian and in Finnish

  • 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 ... bonmots 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, we have hüm 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. But it is however plausible that it could have been combined with the much older Celtic word bwg, meaning 'ghost', due to the Viking conquests of the British Isles at the time, which have much influenced English. Bwg is also what developed into "bugges" in Middle English 1350-1400, then with the meaning of scarecrow or similar. This older connection makes more sense since apparently the term's origin was already unknown in 1751. Also, with bwg meaning ghost, the use of the term fits nicely in Dickens's 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 cicada, that makes a lot of noise.

References: (www.americanheritage.com) www.etymologie.info Svenska Akademiens ordbok s.v. Humbug Dictionnaire de la Langue Francais, Littré 1872-1877 Wiktionary V.K. Müller, Russian-English Dictionary 1911encyclopedia.org Charles Godfrey Leland, Gypsy Sorcery and Fortune Telling [1891], Chapter X of The Haunts, Homes, and Habits of Witches in The South Slavic Lands--Bogeys and Humbugs Svenska Akademiens ordbok s.v. Hum Svenska Akademiens ordbok s.v. Hymla Dictionary of the Vulgar Tongue dictionary.com 1911 Encyclopedia s.v. Humbug Factmonster 1911 Encyclopedia 1911 Encyclopedia word-detective

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    Úim bhog generally means ‘soft harness’ in Irish, not ‘soft copper’. Uim(m) is an Old Irish spelling of a word that is now umha, though uim and uimh are both given as dialectical variants; ‘soft copper’ would mostly have been umha bog since Middle Irish, though. Also, the Icelandic (and Old Norse) word is húm, not *hüm (Icelandic doesn't do ü). Commented Dec 27, 2016 at 8:47
  • Geiriadur Prifysgol Cymraeg gives bwgan, bwga, and bwci (the only actually attested Celtic [which obviously means Welsh here] forms of the ghost word, along with Cornish bucca) as being probably derived from and influenced by English bogey/boogey and possibly OE púca (ModE puck, pook). Though I guess that doesn't rule out the Welsh word being the source of the last part of humbug, which is quite late after all. Commented Dec 27, 2016 at 9:02
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    Looking a bit further, it seems someone actually asked David Stifter about the Irish ‘soft copper’; his comments refuting the likelihood of such an etymology can be found in this article. Commented Dec 27, 2016 at 10:26

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