Origins Of Humbug

On Christmas Eve, Robert Siegel seeks to understand the meaning and origins of the word "humbug" and listens as actors who portrayed Ebenezer Scrooge in A Christmas Carol say the word.

ROBERT SIEGEL, Host:

A word now on a word.

(SOUNDBITE OF MOVIE, "A CHRISTMAS CAROL")

ALASTAIR SIM: (As Ebenezer Scrooge) Humbug.

That's Alastair Sim as Scrooge in a movie version of Dickens "A Christmas Carol." Humbug as uttered by Scrooge implies that holiday cheer is nonsense and a waste of time.

(SOUNDBITE OF MOVIE, "A CHRISTMAS CAROL")

GEORGE C: (As Ebenezer Scrooge) Humbug.

JIM CARREY: (As Ebenezer Scrooge) Humbug.

MICHAEL CAINE: (As Ebenezer Scrooge) Humbug.

PATRICK STEWART: (As Ebenezer Scrooge) Humbug.

SCROOGE MCDUCK: (As Ebenezer Scrooge) Humbug.

MICHAEL HORDERN: (As Ebenezer Scrooge) Humbug.

SIEGEL: What a great word. Those humbugs were movie Scrooges George C. Scott, Jim Carrey, Michael Caine, Patrick Stewart, Scrooge McDuck and Michael Hordern. So here's our Christmas question: what's a humbug? Well, the Oxford English Dictionary tells us it is uncertain where it came from. One theory is that the word started out as Hamburg at a time when England was being flooded with counterfeit coins from that German city. Then there's a theory that humbug comes from two words - hum(ph), the Norse word for night, and bogey, meaning apparition. There are other theories, too many for us to torture you with. But the one that we like the best is the literal: a humming bug, something small and inconsequential and that makes a lot of noise.

Unidentified Man #1: Humbug.

Unidentified Man #2: Don't be cross, uncle.

Unidentified Man #3 (Singer): (Singing) Humbug, bah humbug, chug-a-lug one more eggnog.

SIEGEL: This is NPR.

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