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Mind your language

Where on earth does ‘kibosh’ come from?

2 March 2019

9:00 AM

2 March 2019

9:00 AM

‘What is a kibosh?’ asked a German medical friend of my husband’s, when the word cropped up. No one knew, though we were certain it was the kibosh and it was put on things.

All our lives, the earliest citation for the word had been from Dickens’s Sketches by Boz (1836): ‘ “Hoo-roar,” ejaculates a pot-boy in a parenthesis, “put the kye-bosk on her, Mary”.’ The entry for kibosh in the Oxford English Dictionary is not fully updated, but the online edition has cleared up that strange k. In the first edition of the Sketches, it was spelt kye-bosh, later doubtless misprinted kye-bosk. Someone in the journal Notes & Queries had in 1901 suggested a Yiddish origin, others an Irish one. Some argued that since Dickens was writing about Seven Dials, which was by the 1830s very Irish, it could not be Yiddish. This holds no water. The old clothes trade carried out near Seven Dials had been largely a Jewish occupation, as Henry Mayhew of London Labour and the London Poor explains. In any case, poor Irishmen in London did pick up Yiddish words. As that fine philologist Michael Quinion pointed out in his World Wide Words blog, a court hearing in 1835 at Mansion House had a man called Myers declare: ‘They get other Jews to give me the kibosh upon me.’ In the case, Myers and his wife (who darkened her skin and wore a turban to beg) were said to have pretended to be Jews.


In 2013 in his own Oxford Etymologist blog, Anatoly Liberman ran through the possibilities that kibosh came from the heraldic caboche (‘to cut off the head of a deer’); from a clogmakers’ iron bar; or from a word lurking in the OED as kourbash, Arabic qurbash, derived from Turkish ‘a whip made of hide, especially that of the hippopotamus’. It sounds like Call My Bluff.

In 2017, a short book, Origin of Kibosh: Routledge Studies in Etymology by Gerald Cohen, Stephen Goranson and Matthew Little was published by Routledge at £110. Yes, £110. It is no spoiler to say they lean towards the whip, for you will be ‘instructed and amused’ on the way, says Professor Liberman.

Anyway, I’m not sure they’ve put the kibosh on the problem yet.


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