It’s nothing to do with the black-and-white hard boiled sweets, but thanks to the misanthropic anti-hero of Charles Dickens’ A Christmas Carol, Ebenezer Scrooge.
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!”