MUNDANE MYSTERIES: What Does “Bah! Humbug!” Really Mean?

Ever heard the phrase, “Bah! Humbug!” around Christmastime & wonder what it means? The most famous examples of the phrase come from Charles Dickens’s timeless 1843 tale, A Christmas Carol, in which the curmudgeonly Ebenezer Scrooge regularly proclaims “Bah! Humbug!” when referring to Christmas. Since Scrooge particularly hates the otherwise happy holiday, it’s easy to assume “Humbug!” is just a way to convey dislike or disdain for something. It’s certainly how humbug is used most often nowadays. For example, anyone who refers to the Marvel Cinematic Universe as “not real cinema”, you might say they have a bah-humbug attitude. But the term humbug didn’t originate with ol’ Scrooge. And, in fact, he actually meant something more specific than just “I hate Christmas!” when he said it.

While its true origins aren’t clear, “humbug” first showed up in an issue of The Oxford & Cambridge Monthly Miscellany back in 1750, where it seemed to have been trendy slang coined by the cool kids of the era. While it was slang, humbug was used widely enough that its definition is clear. According to the Oxford English Dictionary, humbug refers to a “hoax; a jesting or befooling trick,” as well as “any thing which is not really what it pretends to be,” such as a sham or fraud. Over time, however, folks began using humbug to just mean general nonsense on the whole.

Scrooge repeatedly calls Christmas “humbug” because he thinks Christmas tricks people into feeling joyful & grateful when they have nothing to be cheery about or thankful for. Scrooge also believed society uses Christmas as an excuse to wrangle money out of wealthy people like him, which is why he refused to donate to a Christmas collection for the poor. Shortly after, Scrooge complains about having to pay his clerk, Bob Cratchit, for an entire day off, calling it “a poor excuse for picking a man’s pocket every 25th of December!”

Basically, old Scrooge considered Christmas a financial & emotional scam on a global scale. But, at least WE know that’s not true. Right? Christmas is whatever you make of it, which hopefully will be the polar opposite of a humbug, each & every year…and this Christmas, especially.

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