Humbug is an archaic term meaning "hoax", or "jest". While the term was first attested in 1751 in student slang, its etymology is unknown. It is known, however, that it was used as profanity centuries ago, in places such as Great Britain. Its present meaning as an exclamation is closer to "nonsense", or "gibberish", while as a noun, a humbug refers to a fraud or impostor, implying an element of unjustified publicity and spectacle. The term was also used for certain types of candy.
In modern usage, the word is probably most associated with Ebenezer Scrooge, a character created by Charles Dickens. His famous reference to Christmas, "Bah! Humbug!", declaring Christmas to be a fraud, is heard afresh every year around Christmas time when the perennial favorite, A Christmas Carol, is played on stage or TV.
P. T. Barnum was a master of humbug, creating public sensations and fascination with his masterful sense of publicity. Many of his promoted exhibitions were obvious fakes, but the paying public enjoyed viewing them, either to scoff or for the wonder of them. If the word humbug enjoyed contemporary usage, it would likely be applied to supermarket tabloids and the publicity industry. A famous humbug took place on the arrival of the actress/theatre manager Jenny Lind to America, just outside the showplace of P. T. Barnum, the New American Museum, in 1850 (etching, right).
In several East-Indian dialects, the word is borrowed from English, and used to mean "to deceive" or "to cheat". In Australian Aboriginal English, humbug means "to pester or annoy."
"The witch, in gypsy as in other lore, is a haunting terror of the night. It has not, that I am aware, ever been conjectured that the word Humbug is derived from the Norse hum, meaning night, or shadows (tenebræ) (JONÆO, "Icelandic Latin glossary in Niall's Saga"), and bog, or bogey, termed in several old editions of the Bible a bug, or "bugges." And as bogey came to mean a mere scarecrow, so the hum-bugges or nightly terrors became synonymes for feigned frights. "A humbug, a false alarm, a bug-bear" ("Dean Milles MS." HALLIWELL). The fact that bug is specialty applied to a nocturnal apparition, renders the reason for the addition of hum very evident.
- Both meanings of the term were used for comic effect in Blackadder's Christmas Carol. Ebenezer Blackadder's first line is "Humbug, humbug!", which is heard by Mr Baldrick in the streets, making it seem as if he is in a foul mood. However, Blackadder enters his shop with a bag of sweets, saying kindly "Humbug, Mr. Baldrick?".
- In Norton Juster's book The Phantom Tollbooth, the Humbug is anthropomorphized as an insectlike character who makes grandiose claims about himself and his ancestry. ("As my great-great grandfather, George Washington Humbug used to say--")
- In Charles Dickens's Great Expectations about old ladies and the gentleman at Mrs Havisham's young Pip said "... the snowplough conveyed to me that they were all toadies and humbugs".
- Graham Cluley's computer game Humbug contains a mint humbug.
- The Little Humbugs - little people, part human, part bug, from the forest are sent by Mother Nature to teach the human world that they need to start looking after the environment - are creations are from children's author/illustrator Marghanita Hughes.
- Near the end of The Wizard of Oz (1939 film), when the Wizard is exposed as a fraud, the angry scarecrow denounces him, "You humbug!" The wizard meekly acknowledges, "You're right, I am a humbug." The wizard's Kansas alter ego, Professor Marvel, was also a humbug.
- Shreveport, Louisiana is home to the 2-108th Cavalry Squadron, the reconnaissances element of the 256th Infantry Brigade. Three of the squadron's four Cavalry Troops are located at 400 East Stoner Ave. in a historic armory known as "Fort Humbug" due to the Confederate Army burning logs to look like cannons and placing them along the Red River. This caused Union iron clad ships sailing north on the Red River to be tricked into turning back South.
- In an episode of "The X-Files" titled "Humbug", Agents "Fox Mulder" and "Dana Scully" visit the town of Gibsonton, Florida to investigate the strange death of a sideshow circus performer, as the towns several eccentric circus sideshow residents come under their suspicion.