What Does 'Bah, Humbug!' Mean?

Ebenezer Scrooge in A Christmas Carol, by Charles Dickens. Illustration by John Leech, 1843.
Ebenezer Scrooge in A Christmas Carol, by Charles Dickens. Illustration by John Leech, 1843.

What did Scrooge mean by 'Humbug'?

"Bah, humbug!" You've all read Charles Dickens's A Christmas Carol or seen Ebenezer Scrooge in one of his film incarnations, such as that of British character actor Alastair Sim in the definitive 1951 movie adaptation. And you've probably wondered what Scrooge meant by the familiar refrain "Humbug!"

Its exact origin is unknown, but according to the Online Etymology Dictionary, it goes back to student slang of the mid-18th century. It meant "trick" or "deception." The lack of firm evidence hasn't stopped scholars and wordsmiths speculating on its derivation, with suggestions ranging from a form of "Hamburg," after fake coins minted in the German city during the Napoleonic Wars, to a combination of the Norse word for "dark" and the word "bogey," meaning "apparition."

It is in the sense of a hypocrisy and a hoax that Scrooge uses the term. When he calls Christmas a humbug, he doesn't mean it is ridiculous--a common misconception. He is calling its celebrants deceivers and hypocrites. Scrooge is commonly supposed simply to be miserable and unprincipled, but in fact he criticizes others based on some very firm, albeit warped, principles. He thinks those who speak of love and charity are insincere; to Scrooge, the goodwill of the festive season is a pretence, and he will have no part of it.

This is why, when nephew Fred questions Scrooge's statement that Christmas is a humbug, the miser explains that Fred is deceiving himself by celebrating the season when he is obviously impoverished. "What reason have you to be merry?" Scrooge asks. "You're poor enough."

Later on, Scrooge dismisses the appearance of Marley's Ghost as a humbug, and tells Marley if he believed in ghosts, he would also have to believe in legions of goblins, which he also denounces as a humbug.

The name "humbug" is also given to a traditional English boiled candy with black and white stripes, a peppermint flavor and chewy toffee inside--a sweet treat that, ironically, might be quite desirable during the Christmas season.

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Comments 5 comments

tnderhrt23 profile image

tnderhrt23 6 years ago

I have always wondered, Rattigan. Very interesting, well written hub! Happy Thanksgiving!


Rattigan profile image

Rattigan 6 years ago from St Catharines, Ontario Author

Why, thank you, and a happy Thanksgiving to you, too. :)


MrsInfertility profile image

MrsInfertility 6 years ago from Ogden, Utah

Just in time for Christmas. Excellent hub!


Anaya M. Baker profile image

Anaya M. Baker 5 years ago from North Carolina

Wow, great insight into the character of Scrooge. I'd never realized the more subtle social commentary going on there...and of course I was thrilled to learn just exactly what the mysterious humbug is...good stuff, thanks!


Smokes Angel profile image

Smokes Angel 4 years ago from Broke Alabama

very cool choice of a hub at Christmas time.

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