Isherwood Column: “Bah Humbug”
By Justin Isherwood
Shakespeare, for the record, invented 1,700 words, to include buzzer, frugal, if something more functional, assassination. Truth being, Shakespeare less invented words as he was an avid and multiple exploiter. The man would not leave the English language alone. He imported, expropriated, borrowed. As for assassination, the Bible records that Joab, nephew to King David assassinated his son Absalom. 2 Samuel 18, if in a later reprisal he too died by, you guessed it … assassination.
Dickens is credited with inventing 11 words, to include buzz, the creeps, devil may care, flummox, gonoph, pick-pocket, gorm, a polite abbreviation to goddamn, lummy meaning cute, on the rampage, officious tapeworm, saw horses, whiz-bang.
Shakespeare’s written word count is 884,647, Dickens 4,423,235, such the contest as matters only to English majors, Dickens can rest easy on his verb-smithery, or adjectables as the case may be.
The word most of us associate with Dickens invention is humbug, the famous retort at several moments in A Christmas Carol. This the salient outburst of the core character, the curmudgeon capitalist. Humbug is where A Christmas Carol gets its generous measure of both skepticism and vitality. Bah humbug, says Scrooge, that in our time we might resound as “Fake News.”
The phrase bah humbug appears seven times in Christmas Carol, if on the seventh attempt Ebenezer stops at bah, the humbug left unsaid having just seen the apparition of Marley’s ghost.
Humbug, the word was in much evidence in the Dickens world, referring to a person, or institution that behaves in a deceptive manner, a synonym for political gibberish, or faithful nonsense. In person, a humbug was an imposter, a fraud, a deceiver, a discreditable public spectacle.
Dickens used the term humbug in the 1843 A Christmas Carol, the fourth of his Christmas stories that were to be followed by four others. None to prove as popular as A Christmas Carol whose 1843 edition sold out by Christmas Eve, despite it had only been released on December 19th. No greater joy has an author.
As for bah humbug’s origin, some hold it was a popular nautical term of this same period if research has yet to reveal what exactly was a marine humbug. Perhaps a well-tuned bed bug, or noisy ship lice. More credibly bah humbug was popular student slang expression in the 1750s for hoax or something too good to be true.
A Christmas Carol and its bah humbug rose out of the popular and pedestrian reinvention of Christmas taking place in mid-19th century England. Until then Christmas was not a middle class celebration but a sober church season since Cromwell, the Puritans and Calvinists had dispensed with Christmas as being too pagan. Christmas and its illuminated celebration was something of a grinding civil grudge that pitted the Calvinists, and their ilk in English society against liberal Lutherans of the Germanic, to include the Celts who had a long established veneration of trees. What any properly dour Methodist perceived as tree worship. An English Christmas in this prior time was a staid affair, no tree, no carols, no presents, no cookies, instead a time of monkish self-reflection. An aesthetic event, more fasting than feast.
Who first tilted the English world toward a wholehearted Christmas was Queen Charlotte, known as good Queen Charlotte, the wife of George III, the very same as loyal Americans revile. Charlotte being German, to include suspicion of Lutheran tendencies, erected a good and proper German Christmas tree at the Queen’s Lodge in 1800. These the same English Thomas Jefferson could not stand, Monticello never had a Christmas tree, to think Thomas might have liked one.
Queen Victoria usually gets the credit for inventing the English custom of the Christmas tree, 1840, an affectionate token of her husband, what the English so politely called the consort, with vague reference to being a sexually active queen.
It was this new allowance, this Bavarian tree thing that quickly caught on in English custom, did so with a certain social suddenness to displace Old Order Calvinists. Carols previously associated with the pagan celebration of the Solstice were exhumed. The Catholic Church all the while had many nativity carols and chants, being universally in the Latin were not popularly embraced until this era and their translation into English. Puritanism as basically anti-Catholic had halted all forms of Christmas celebrancy including carols. There were however certain secret men’s clubs, usually associated with pubs and guilds, that from the 1650s on where tavern songs included joyful if not raucous carol singing. Who in their ardor did turn out on the street to sing for coppers and kisses.
The Victorian age released this pent-up desire with the installation of that Christmas tree at Windsor. “Waits” and “carolers” began openly roaming town and village evenings singing carols both sacred and profane. Good King Wenceslas was a Victorian carol, here too the Nine Lessons and Carols. God Rest ye Merry Gentlemen, O Holy Night, The 12 Days of Christmas. Dickens and his charmed novella tapped into this willful Christmas ascendency, and a story reflective of the growing socialization of this Christmas moment. Scrooge was it seems of the old Puritan heart when he uttered bah humbug. Only to realize as the efficient capitalist, he was on the wrong side of a market trend that would become the Christmas we experience. Seems there was money to be made in bah humbug.