Humbug Definition

A Word Made Immortal By Two Geniuses of the 1800s

Photographic portrait of showman Phineas T. Barnum
Phineas T. Barnum. Getty Images

Humbug was a word used the 19th century to mean a trick played upon unsuspecting people. The word lives on in the English language today thanks largely to two notable figures, Charles Dickens and Phineas T. Barnum.

Dickens famously made “Bah, humbug!” the trademark phrase of an unforgettable character, Ebenezer Scrooge. And the great showman Barnum took delight in being known as the “Prince of Humbugs.”

Barnum’s fondness for the word indicates an important characteristic of humbug. It isn’t just that a humbug is something false or deceptive, it is also, in its purest form, highly entertaining. The numerous hoaxes and exaggerations which Barnum exhibited during his long career were termed humbugs but calling them that indicated a sense of playfulness.

Origin of Humbug as a Word

The word humbug seems to have been coined sometime in the 1700s. Its roots are obscure, but it caught on as slang among students.

The word began appearing in dictionaries, such as in the 1798 edition of A Dictionary of the Vulgar Tongue edited by Francis Grose:

To Hum, or Humbug. To deceive, to impose on one by some story or device. A humbug; a jocular imposition, or deception.

When Noah Webster published his landmark dictionary in 1828, humbug was again defined as an imposition.

Humbug as Used by Barnum

The popular use of the word in America was largely due to Phineas T.

Barnum. Early in his career, when he exhibited obvious frauds such as Joice Heth, a woman said to be 161 years old, he was denounced for perpetrating humbugs.

Barnum essentially adopted the term and defiantly chose to consider it a term of affection. He began to call some of his own attractions humbugs, and the public took it as good-natured kidding.

It should be noted that Barnum despised people like con men or snake oil salesmen who actively cheated the public. He eventually wrote a book titled The Humbugs of the World which criticized them.

But in his own usage of the term, a humbug was a playful hoax that was highly entertaining. And the public seemed to agree, returning time and again to view whatever humbug Barnum might be exhibiting.

Humbug as Used by Dickens

In the classic novella, ​A Christmas Carol by Charles Dickens, the miserly character Ebenezer Scrooge uttered “Bah, humbug!” when reminded of Christmas. To Scrooge, the word meant a folly, something too silly for him to spend time on.

In the course of the story, however, Scrooge receives visits from the ghosts of Christmas, learns the true meaning of the holiday, and ceases to regard celebrations of Christmas as humbug.