Why do we say ‘Bah Humbug’ and what does it mean?
When the sleigh bells ring, the halls are decked and the goose is getting fat, there are always the Christmas curmudgeons who reject the merriment of the festive season and come together under the joyless slogan: "Bah, humbug"! But where did the saying come from?
The phrase is often misunderstood. When Scrooge decries Christmas as a ‘humbug’, it is often taken as a general exclamation of displeasure and bitterness, but Scrooge didn’t just hate Christmas at the start of the tale – he deemed it to be a complete fraud.
Although associated forevermore with anti-Christmas cheer, the word ‘humbug’ was in common parlance long before Dickens wrote his festive novella in 1843, and was meant as a hoax or deceit. (In fact, it was described in 1751 as “a word very much in vogue with the people of taste and fashion”.)
When, in 1846, renowned American surgeon John Collins Warren performed the first operation using ether as anaesthesia, he was observed by a stunned audience of medical professionals and students. After the successful surgery, Dr Warren announced to his sceptical spectators: “Gentlemen, this is no humbug!”
On the podcast – Christmas feasts with Annie Gray
In our festive four-part series, Annie Gray takes Ellie Cawthorne on a culinary journey through the history of Christmas food. Listen to the full series now:
- Episode 1: Medieval & Tudor revelry
- Episode 2: Georgian elegance
- Episode 3: Victorian merrymaking
- Episode 4: WW2 rationing & postwar absurdity