Green’s Dictionary of Slang

humbug n.

also hombug
[ety. unknown; ‘facts as to its origin appear to have been lost, even before the word became common enough to excite attention’ (OED). Hotten (1859) traces the first use back to c.1735, finding it in Ferdinando Killigrew’s The Universal Jester (the OED dates this edn to 1754), where it is cited in a list of ‘merry conceits, facetious drolleries, &c., clenchers, closers, closures, bon-mots and humbugs’. He also notes that the mid-18C radical Orator Henley was sometimes nicknamed ‘Orator Humbug’. As to ety., he suggests either hum or the German town of Hamburg, ‘from which town so many false bulletins and reports came during the war in the last century’. After 1800 its use spread ‘in periodical literature, and in novels not written by squeamish or over-precise authors’. However, note hummer n.1 (1), an obvious lie, is earlier]

1. a trick, a hoax, an imposture.

Killigrew Universal Jester; or a pocket companion for the Wits: being a choice collection of merry conceits, facetious drolleries, &c., clenchers, closers, closures, bon-mots, and hum-bugs [title].
[UK]Student II n.p.: There is a word very much in vogue with the people of taste and fashion, which, though it has not even the ‘penumbra’ of a meaning, yet makes up the sum total of the wit, sense, and judgment of the aforesaid people of taste and fashion! [...] Humbug is neither an English word, nor a derivative from any other language. It is indeed a blackguard sound, made use of by most people of distinction! It is a fine make-weight in conversation, and some great men deceive themselves so egregiously as to think they mean something by it!
[UK]T. Sheridan Brave Irishman I ii: He’s sometimes pretty smart upon me with his humbugs.
[UK]H. Howard Choice Spirits Museum 3: Soon you’ll smell the Humbug out.
[UK]Smollett Humphrey Clinker (1925) I 169: This is no more than a humbug in the way of wit.
[UK]Mme D’Arblay Diary (1891) I 293: He thinks it ‘a humbug upon the nation,’ as George Bodens called the parliament.
[UK]G.A. Stevens Adventures of a Speculist I 19: Do sing a song about Humbug. D--n me, if I ain’t fond of it.
[UK]Sporting Mag. Dec. XIII 173/2: To bubble him, like a lying knave, / With three such damn’d humbugs.
[UK]B.H. Malkin (trans.) Adventures of Gil Blas (1822) II 192: The alaguazil [...] divined most perspicuously that this marvellous adventure must be a complete humbug.
[UK]‘Thomas Brown’ Fudge Family in Paris Letter III 20: Talk of England — her famed Magna Charta, I swear, is / A humbug, a flam, to the Carte at old Véry’s.
[US]N.-Y. Eve. Post 1 Sept. 2/3: When I first saw it announced [...] that some of the inveterate fops had adopted the use of check-shirts, in imitation of sailors and others, who, from necessity, have to wash their own linen, I consider[ed] it a mere humbug.
[UK]Egan Finish to the Adventures of Tom and Jerry (1889) 165: This mode of humbug has too often had the desired effect; and several gentlemen have lost from twenty to thirty pounds.
[UK] ‘“Taking Off” of Prince Albert’s Inexpressibles’ in C. Hindley Curiosities of Street Lit. (1871) 36: These [...] times, when puffery and humbug lead men on to fame and fortune.
[UK]Lytton My Novel (1884–5) II Bk XI 394: I dare say it is all a humbug.
[Aus]Melbourne Punch 20 Nov. 3/3: DODGE.-Noun, a move, a fakement, a notion a fixin, humbug, hankypanky, a plant, &c., &c. This word is of almost universal application.
[UK](con. 1840s–50s) H. Mayhew London Labour and London Poor I 263/1: If any of the ladies present were to call you handsome, that would be a humbug.
[UK]‘Old Calabar’ Won in a Canter I 247: ‘The Captain and I do not intend to have any more humbug’.
[US]M. Thompson Hoosier Mosaics 29: Which balloon and which Le Papillon were pictured to the life, on the said posters, in the act of sailing over the sun, and under the picture, in remarkably distinct letters, ‘No humbug! go to the fair!’.
[UK]W.S. Gilbert ‘At a Pantomime’ Fifty ‘Bab’ Ballads 311: They only see in the humbug old / A holiday every year, / And handsome gifts, and joys untold.
[Aus]Bulletin (Sydney) 2 Aug. 14/1: It happened that a kid-gloved predecessor had been soaping down the tabs with ‘A great work being done’ and similar tommy-rot, but the new man wrote that it was all humbug – half a dozen common woman lectured by a dozen stiff-’uns.
[UK]Boy’s Own Paper 17 Nov. 105: Haven’t I said the Ju-Ju is only a humbug, and there’s more magic in a gun than in a dozen of them?
[UK]H.G. Wells Hist. of Mr Polly (1946) 55: Too much blooming humbug in it for my way of thinking.
[US]O.O. McIntyre New York Day by Day 9 Mar. [synd. col.] As Ukelele Ike sings: ‘Be it ever so humbug, there’s no place like Florida.’.
[Aus]X. Herbert Capricornia (1939) 132: No-more humbug. I’m proper wild tonight.
[US]H. Miller Sexus (1969) 120: It was all right [...] to go in for that sort of thing – meaning pictures and all that humbug – provided one had the talent for it.
[US]H. Simmons Corner Boy 193: He wasn’t going to get to her on a humbug.
[UK]P. Theroux Family Arsenal 144: Children are unmoved by sham and humbug.
[US]E. Folb Runnin’ Down Some Lines 98: Did git over dere, ain’ nothin’ but a vacant lot! Send ’im on a long hombug. [Ibid.] 99: So I gave him a fake address out in Long Beach somewhere and that was a humbug.

2. nonsense, esp. moralizing hypocrisy.

[UK]Sporting Mag. June XX 149/1: Faith, there was high humbug there last week.
[UK]Sir W. Scott Rob Roy (1883) 424: Pooh! pooh! his Excellency and his Lordship’s all a humbug now, you know – mere St. Germains titles.
[UK]R. Nicholson Cockney Adventures 10 Feb. 114: Don’t get reading the humbug, and listening to the patter of that old devil-dodger there.
[UK]R. Barham ‘Black Mousquetaire’ in Ingoldsby Legends (1842) 21: That sort of address / Which the British call ‘Humbug’ [...] It’s ‘Blarney’ in Irish.
[Aus]Satirist & Sporting Chron. (Sydney) 11 Feb. 1/4: Talk not of a political ‘squibs’, of ‘renegades,’ of placemen, here we have the concentrated essence of humbug [...] Ridiculous are his eforts to ‘gull’ us.
[UK]F.E. Smedley Frank Fairlegh (1878) 267: Umph! don’t think I look much like a ghost, either. Not that there are such things in reality; all humbug, sir.
[UK]E. Eden Semi-Attached Couple (1979) 93: Are you still going on with all that old humbug of being glad to see people, and of having something to say to them?
[US]C. White Magic Penny in Darkey Drama 5 Act I: No, no, I tell you it’s all humbug.
[US]E. Eggleston Hoosier School-Master (1892) 129: Pshaw! that talk about kyindness [...] is all humbug.
[UK] ‘’Arry on ’onesty’ in Punch 31 Jan. 60/1: Not moral, sing out the old Mivvies! Lor, Charlie, wot ’umbug it is!
[UK] ‘’Arry on Blues and Bluestockings’ in Punch 21 Mar. 135/1: It’s fair monstrous, the way we get worried and vext [...] / by Women’s Rights ’umbug and slop.
[UK]Sporting Times 4 Mar. 1/2: One fact stands out clear without humbug or flam.
[UK]Boy’s Own Paper XL:4 173: That was a record, and no humbug!
[UK]J. Buchan Mr Standfast (1930) 533: I’ve got a cousin who’s a Presbyterian minister up in Ross-shire, and before I knew about this passport humbug I wrote to him and offered to pay him a visit.
[US]Kerouac letter 16 Jan. in Charters I (1995) 542: Bah humbug and bullshit.

3. one who employs such ploys, a hypocrite.

[UK] ‘Mr. Mug; or, The Witty Cockney’ in Merry Melodist 5: I met a trading Black-a-moor, a woolly old humbug.
[UK]Dickens Pickwick Papers (1999) 19: Mr. blotton would only say then, that he repelled the hon. gent’s false and scurrilous accusation, with profound contempt [...] The hon. gent was a humbug.
[UK]Thackeray Diary of C. Jeames de la Pluche in Works III (1898) 396: I gave the old humbugg a few shares out of my own pocket.
[Ind]E.R. Sullivan Bungalow or Tent 149: The coolies [...] are very willing men, but the most accomplished humbigs imaginable.
[US]J.H. Green Reformed Gambler 38: Mr. Field, the aforesaid editor, opened his battery upon me – declaring that my lectures had an injurious tendency, and that I was a humbug!
[UK](con. 1840s–50s) H. Mayhew London Labour and London Poor I 300/1: Anybody that looks on the board looks on us as cheats and humbugs, and thinks that our catalogues are all takes-in.
[UK]C. Hindley Life and Adventures of a Cheap Jack 157: It seems a great thing to be a humbug [...] It means hitting the public in reality. Anybody who can do it is sure to be called a humbug by somebody who can’t.
[Aus]Bulletin (Sydney) 3 Jan. 7/1: It has remained, however, for the publication [...] to show us that the great philosopher, prophet, and teacher was a humbug – what he, in his barbarous jargon, would have called ‘a wind-bag and a sham.’.
[UK]‘Walter’ My Secret Life (1966) VI 1179: Then she shammed modesty till I lost my temper, for I know when a regular whore does that she is a humbug.
[UK]Marvel 22 May 3: If these confounded red-tape humbugs would act at once on what we say, half the disasters in the Service might be avoided.
[UK]Magnet 3 Sept. 8: You’re such a blessed spoofing young humbug!
[UK]J. Buchan Greenmantle (1930) 258: There were the real prisoners, mostly English and French, and there were humbugs [...] There was one man who passed as an English officer, another as a French Canadian, and the others called themselves Russians.
[UK]E. Raymond Tell England (1965) 202: You beastly, little, intolerant, medieval humbug.
[UK]A. Christie Sad Cypress (1954) 27: You humbug!
[UK]A. Garve Murder in Moscow (1994) 31: He hates censors [...] and humbugs, and stuffed shirts.
[Ire](con. 1890–1910) ‘Flann O’Brien’ Hard Life (1962) 65: They are humbugs and imposters and a disgrace to their cloth.
[Ire]P. Boyle At Night All Cats Are Grey 64: Well, the bloody humbug!
[UK]T. Stoppard Jumpers Act II: You bloody humbug!

4. (US; later use US black) anything worrying, complicated, unpleasant, offensive, troublesome or a misunderstanding, esp. if trivial.

[US] in M. Lane Dear Mother (1977) 19: [The] bed tick [...] is of no use, as straw is not always convenient and it’s humbug anyhow [HDAS].
[Aus]X. Herbert Capricornia (1939) 26: You no-more humbug longa this one piccanin. You look out him all right.
[US]H.S. Thompson letter 21 Jan. in Proud Highway (1997) 311: But it can cause a lot of humbug before it goes off.
[US]H.E. Roberts Third Ear n.p.: humbug n. […] 3. an unimportant trifle; e.g. They started to fight on a humbug.
[UK]Guardian G2 25 Jan. 6: All those articles about [...] a shift in the fashion industry’s attitude to womanly bodies are so much humbug.

5. (US black) a fight.

[US]P. Crump Burn, Killer, Burn! 18: Wusn’t dat de damnest humbug today? [...] You should’a seen me lammin’ de hell outta [etc.].
[US] (ref. to 1957) in R.L. Keiser Vice Lords 2: See, there was this humbug (fight) between the Clovers and the Egyptian Cobras. A boy got killed in that humbug.
[US]H.E. Roberts Third Ear n.p.: humbug n. 1. a fight.
[US]E. Folb Runnin’ Down Some Lines 242: hombug, humbug n. [...] 2. Bad situation. 3. Fight.

6. (US black) a gang.

[US]H.E. Roberts Third Ear n.p.: humbug n. [...] 2. a gang.

7. (US Und.) a false arrest on trumped-up charges; also attrib. [var. on hummer n.6 ].

[US]E. Folb Runnin’ Down Some Lines 231: bust (one) on a hombug/humbug Arrest on an unwarranted or fabricated charge.
[US]N. Heard House of Slammers 105: He’d been busted on a ‘humbug’ which always implied that the police or the judicial system had indulged in fraudulent methods to railroad one to prison.
[US](con. early 1950s) J. Ellroy L.A. Confidential 122: Some humbug beef, maybe like dischargin’ firearms inside city limit.