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The Scrivener: Humbug!

"Doing crossword puzzles isn't a complete or reliable way of preventing the onset of dementia but it certainly helps to keep the little grey cells active. And it can be very rewarding indeed,'' says wordsman Brian Barratt.

The other day, a quick crossword in the daily newspaper needed a word meaning ‘sham’. Five letters. The fourth letter was U so I wrote BOGUS. It didn’t fit the other words. The answer was FRAUD. Bogus looks Latin, and fraud looks French, so I waddled off to look at a few dictionaries. Life is enriched by dictionaries.

Surprise surprise! Bogus is not Latin at all. It is a genuine Americanism. It was coined in about 1827 as the name of a machine for making counterfeit money. It is thought to have been adapted from an older word tantrabogus or tantrabobus, the name of a devil or bogie.

I was right about fraud. It came from the French fraude in the 13th century. In the late 14th century Chaucer wrote, for example, of trecheyes and fraudes and in The Summoner's Tale:

Withouten fraude or cavillacioun.
I swere it, quod this frere, by my feith!

(And without fraud or cavil, be it known.
I swear it, said this friar, on my faith!)

In his 1382 work on the Bible, Wycliffe translated Mark 10:19 as

Thou knowist the comaundementis, do thou noon auowtrie, `sle not, stele not, seie not fals witnessyng, do no fraude, worschipe thi fadir and thi modir.

In the later translation authorised by King James in 1611, this appears as:

Thou knowest the commandments, Do not commit adultery, Do not kill, Do not steal, Do not bear false witness, Defraud not, Honour thy father and mother.

William Shakespeare used the word only six times, once in each of six plays. Here's a beautiful poetic example from Two Gentlemen of Verona:

But truer stars did govern Proteus' birth;
His words are bonds, his oaths are oracles,
His love sincere, his thoughts immaculate,
His tears pure messengers sent from his heart,
His heart as far from fraud as heaven from earth.

He also used the word fraudful, which is now pretty well obsolete.

And so we move to another word with a similar meaning. Fake did not appear in print until about 1775, meaning spurious or counterfeit. Some authorities connect it with the same word in slang meaning to do, to act upon, to tamper with, even to wound. An 1811 dictionary of cant and thieves’ slang defines a fakement as a countefeit or forgery. It might be related to Italian facciare, to make, to do.

In Anglo-Romani, the language of the British Gypsies, it means to play a musical instrument, as in ‘Do you fake the bosh?’, Do you play the fiddle (violin)? In the 1920s, that meaning seems to have found its way into jazz, where to fake can mean to improvise.

Thanks to Charles Dickens, there is another word which became very well known. Who can forget:

'A merry Christmas, uncle! God save you!' cried a cheerful voice. It was the voice of Scrooge's nephew, who came upon him so quickly that this was the first intimation he had of his approach.
'Bah!' said Scrooge, 'Humbug!'

A Christmas Carol was published in 1843 but humbug first appeared in the mid-1700s. It has a variety of uses:
— something designed to deceive and mislead
— a willfully false, deceptive, or insincere person
— an attitude or spirit of deception.

The great American showman Phineas T. Barnum was known as the Prince of Humbugs because of the hoaxes he staged and displayed. For example, he exhibited a 'mermaid' which was the head of a monkey and the tail of a fish stitched together. When the crowds at his museum were getting too large, he put up signs 'This Way to the Egress' which, of course, curious people followed, only to find themselves outside the building and having to pay to get in again.

Humbug has another meaning in British English, namely, a minty sweet (candy, lolly) of a particular shape. It is not certain how it came to be called a humbug in the 1820s but one dictionary refers to it as a mint-flavored candy imposture. I can't explain why it should be thought of as an imposture, a sweet pretending to be something it was not. But that could provide the basis of a particularly obscure clue for a cryptic crossword to keep the little grey cells very active indeed.

© Copyright Brian Barratt 2003, 2007, 2011.


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