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The use of the word humbug for a stripy peppermint-flavoured boiled sweet seems to date from the nineteenth century: the Oxford English Dictionary notes it as being ‘remembered in common use in Gloucestershire’ in the 1820s, while Elizabeth Gaskell in Sylvia's Lovers (1863) explained: ‘He had provided himself with a paper of humbugs for the child—“humbug” being the north-country term for certain lumps of toffy, well-flavoured with peppermint.’

The word humbug itself first appeared as a popular slang term of the 1750s, and like most colloquial neologisms aroused a good deal of disapproval (the January 1751 issue of The Student declared it ‘a blackguard sound … a fine make-weight in conversation’ which ‘some great men deceive themselves so egregiously as to think they mean something by it’). It originally meant ‘practical joke, hoax’ rather than the present, more earnest ‘hypocritical sham’, and its application to an article of food may be of similar inspiration to trifle.

Subjects: Cookery, Food, and Drink.

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