Thursday, October 16, 2008


Tom Hagan from Indian River, Michigan, asks: “The word I’m asking about is ‘bogus.’ Merriam-Webster yields little other than pertaining to counterfeit money and the apparatus used to print counterfeit money (1825). I have to think that the origin of this word is based upon an acronym, the last two letters standing for United States. The third letter might well refer to ‘government’ and perhaps the second is ‘of.’ Tell me what the ‘B’ represents or tell me that my logic sucks and indicate where this word really began.”

Let’s see: the acronym B.O.G.U.S. = Bull**** of the Government of the United States? That’s about as convincing as the Ship High In Transit story to explain manure.

For the most part, acronyms (words formed from first letters of each word and pronounced as a word --NATO) did not exist before 1900, so we can rule that out. Sorry, Tom.

Originally, bogus was the name for a counterfeit coin, but no one is sure why. The first appearance in print, according to The Random House Historical Dictionary of American Slang, was 1797 in a book called Band of Brothers: “Coney means Counterfeit paper money . . . Bogus means spurious coin.”

Another appearance in print is very detailed. We have an account from Eber D. Howe, editor of the Painsville Telegraph (Painesville, Ohio) in 1827. A group of counterfeiters was arrested in May of that year as a large crowd watched. When a confiscated machine used to stamp out phony coins was carried out of the building, someone in the crowd shouted, “That’s a bogus!”

Eber D Howe suggested that it was a shortened version of tantrabogus, a word he knew from his childhood and which in his father’s time back in Vermont meant any ill-looking object. Michael Quinion suggests that it might be linked to the old Devonshire dialect word tantarabobs, a word for the devil or any misshapen creature, making it a relative of words like bogy and boogie man.

Another theory traces "bogus" to "boko," which means "fake" in the West African Hausa language. Perhaps slaves brought it over, is the suggestion. Word expert Eric Partridge (A Dictionary of Slang and Unconventional English) suggests that it might be connected to the 18th c. [1758] callibogus, an inferior beverage composed of cheap rum and spruce beer or other liquor or molasses. Callibogus is a tradition in Newfoundland.

SIDEBAR: The Seven Warning Signs of Bogus Science.

Now available from McFarland & Co.: Word Parts Dictionary, 2nd edition

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