The Bookshelf: Origin of Kibosh.

A few years ago I did a post on the slang word kibosh, and Stephen Goranson added the following comment last October:

Published this month:
Origin of Kibosh: Routledge Studies in Etymology
by Gerald Cohen, Stephen Goranson, and Matthew Little.

Now he has been kind enough to have a copy sent to me, and it’s a wonderful little book — I wish there could be such a volume for every word with an interesting etymology. It starts, admirably, by presenting the basic thesis (it’s from kurbash ‘a long whip made of hippopotamus or rhinoceros hide’) and summarizing the evidence; the bulk of the book consists of detailed accounts of the history of the word and of the attempts to provide an etymology. These paragraphs from the Overview will give the basic idea:

The earliest previously noticed attestation of kibosh is from 1836—in Cockney speech—and the new antedatings of ca. 1830–1835, while only a few years older, are highly significant. They bring important evidence in favor of kibosh < kurbash and also confirm the early presence of kibosh in Cockney speech.

The most important antedating, spotted by Goranson, is the ca. 1830 kibosh in the broadside Penal Servitude!, an apparently humorous poem supposedly written by a convict returning from Australia. The writer not only provides the earliest attestation thus far for kibosh, but is likely also responsible for the entrance of kibosh into British speech. If we assume (and this seems reasonable) that his poem had popularity in the lower strata of British society, we would have the explanation for how kibosh was acquired (or at the very least, popularized) there.

Here is the crucial quatrain from the broadside:

There is one little dodge I am thinking,
That would put your profession all to smash,
It would put on the kibosh like winking,
That is if they was to introduce the lash.

The next step in the development is described on p. 3:

So kibosh was evidently introduced to British speech by the poem Penal Servitude!, but it was not yet widely known. Unless something happened to change this situation, kibosh would remain restricted to the lower echelons of British society or fade into oblivion, as so many other slang items did. But something did happen. An unlikely, unheralded, and unwitting lexical hero emerged: a Cockney chimney sweep, hauled into court in 1834 with his companion for violating the 1834 Chimney Sweepers Act, had an outburst of frustration and anger after the trial. That outburst—delivered in an unmistakable Cockney dialect—contained a blast against ‘the Vigs’ (Whigs) and the sweep used the new expression put the kibosh on. The London Standard article reporting on the trial was widely reprinted in England, and now people all over country were reading about putting the kibosh on the ‘Vigs.’ In particular, people engaged in political discourse picked up the expression. Put the kibosh on was of humble origin, but the people doing the kiboshing were politically significant: the Duke of Wellington, MP William Ingilby, and no less a personage than the British King. Put the kibosh on was now taking root in British speech.

There are plenty of illustrations, including one of the broadside itself (of which only a single copy survives). And the primary author of the book is Gerald Cohen, whose journal Comments on Etymology I wrote about here (it’s only on paper, not available on the Internet); you could hardly ask for a more authoritative scholar. The book is pricey (it almost goes without saying), but see if your library has it; it’s well worth perusing if you have any interest in the word.

Comments

  1. If the meaning intended in “Penal Servitude!” was a type of whip, then that quatrain seems rather poorly structured; it gives away the punch line in line three, unless it was assumed by the author that the meaning of “kibosh” would be unknown to the reader. However, it is easy to see how the crucial line could be reinterpreted to give “kibosh” its modern meaning, since the verse actually reads better that way.

  2. “that quatrain seems rather poorly structured” — broadside ballads are rarely literary jewels

  3. Wheee! $137.85? That puts the kibosh on me buying it.

  4. Thanks. An enlargeable color photo of the broadside “Penal Servitude!” is provided by the National Library of Australia:
    https://catalogue.nla.gov.au/Record/502489

  5. I had come across kurbash several years ago, and mentally pronounced it with /u/, without checking, so it would never have occurred to me to link the two.

  6. marie-lucie says:

    Aidan: Thanks for the link. The conditions of the slave trade in the Sudan seem to have been even worse than those of the Atlantic one.

    I find the English translation of the relevant German sentence puzzling, probably incorrect. This is about the fate of the exhausted slave on the route through the desert:

    Wenn er zusammensackte und ihn nicht einmal mehr die ‚Karbach‘, die aus Nilpferdleder gefertigte Peitsche, zum Aufstehen bewegen konnte, wurde er einfach zurückgelassen

    = If he collapsed, not feeling the scourge of the ‘kurbash,’ the hippopotamus-leather whip, he was simply left there [to become one of the many camel and human skeletons that showed the route of the caravans]

    Should not this be : If he collapsed, and the ‘kurbash’ …. could no longer move him to stand up, he was simply left behind

  7. Yes, I’m pretty sure you’re right. Sloppy translation.

  8. marie-lucie says:

    I went back to the earlier post on kibosh, for which I had some comments which I had forgotten

    After rereading the whole of that earlier post, I don”t think that the origin of kibosh has anything to do with the hippopotamus leather whip (Goranson et al.’s work was dismissed by one of the commenters there) referred to as kurbash or (in the German text) karbach. But the author of “Penal Servitude” could have confused the rare words kurbash and kibosh, since neither one was commonly known in English at the time.

    Since kibosh is used after the verb ‘put on”, the meaning ‘whip’ does not seem to be right.

  9. David Marjanović says:

    Should not this be : If he collapsed, and the ‘kurbash’ …. could no longer move him to stand up, he was simply left behind

    Yes, except that nicht einmal means “not even”.

  10. marie-lucie says:

    Thanks David for the correction. It’s a long time since I studied any German. I was surprised I could still figure out most of the syntax.

  11. David Marjanović says:

    🙂

  12. The 2014 post on kibosh (linked above) does include a dismissive comment (“…indefensible, as I will explain….”), and I still await that proposed explanation. The book does include extensive discussion of then-available alternate proposals, as well as comment on “put on the kibosh” and “put the kibosh on.” It includes several texts in which the kibosh is a lash. For example, a traveler from London to East Africa wrote in 1892, “Witnessing the event, Hamidi’s kibosh (rhinoceros-hide stick) went whistling through the air….” And, marie-lucie, if you know of any use of kibosh earlier than 1830, please do share.

  13. Yes, while I think everyone’s first reaction to the kibosh = whip idea is that it feels implausible, the evidence presented in the book is quite compelling.

  14. marie-lucie says:

    Well, I think that people here know that I am willing to be “compelled” when I see compelling evidence, but I am not a specialist in English language history and will trust LH’s judgment since he has read the book and I have not.

    The strangeness is not just that kibosh or a very similar word means ‘whip, lash’, but specifically ‘whip made of rhinoceros or hippopotamus hide, used by slave traders in East Africa to control their victims’ (something that writers about the area feel needs explaining when they first use the word). But I could imagine this being used as metaphor. I won’t try to say any more!

  15. David Marjanović says:

    A whip made from hippopotamus hide used to threaten or punish generic underlings was a trope in German literature set in the Middle East in the 19th century. It just didn’t have a name.

  16. I remember sjambok from reading Louis Boussenard’s novels set in South Africa.

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