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Putting the kibosh on it

Many words in English have obscure origins, particularly those that first appeared in argot, cant or slang. None is more mysterious than kibosh, which is most commonly encountered in the phrase to put the kibosh on something, to finish something off, put an end to it, decisively dispose of it, or reject it. This is perhaps less common than it once was, though examples are easy enough to find:

We had been invited to Whiteshell Provincial Park by the Three Fires Society to participate in a special First Nations ceremony at a remote, sacred site. Record amounts of rainfall that morning, on top of an access trail already compromised by all-terrain vehicles, effectively put the kibosh on the proceedings.

Winnipeg Free Press, 12 Jun. 2010.

I think he would have loved to stay in the RAF, being a search and rescue pilot, but that branch’s privatisation put the kibosh on that.

The Sun (London), 18 Feb. 2016.

The word originated in Britain in the early part of the nineteenth century. Until recently, it was believed that the first written evidence was in Charles Dickens’s Sketches by Boz of 1836, where he spelled it phonetically as kye-bosk (Douglas Wilson of the American Dialect Society has recently discovered that the same piece appeared in the magazine Bell’s Life in London the year before).

Now we have electronic databases of newspapers and periodicals that cover this period, slightly earlier appearances are known. It turned up in a number of London journals within a few days of each other in late 1834, following a case in a London magistrates’ court that concerned two chimney sweeps, who were convicted of having touted for business by crying their services in the streets (they were fined a shilling each, plus costs). One of the sweeps made a whimsical comment on the recent change of government from the Whigs to the Conservatives, the latter being temporarily led by the Duke of Wellington:

The real cause of the “kiboshing” of the ex-Chancellor and his crew came out on Tuesday at Marlborough-street, before Mr. Dyer. A chimney-sweep was convicted for having (according to the phraseology of this Whig Act) “hawked the streets” — upon which his Blackness remarked: — “It vos the Vigs vot passed this Bill, and what the Duke of Vellington put the kibosh on ’em for, and sarve ’em right. It warnt nothing else than this here hact vot floored ’em.”

The Age, 30 Nov. 1834. Note the frequent substitution of w by v, a characteristic of working-class London speech of the period. The newspaper seems to have liked the word, since kiboshing appears again a week later to refer to a terse rebuff by the King, William IV, to an impertinent suggestion from a group of politicians, and kibosh occurs several more times in later months.

Another early example came out of a court case at the Mansion House in the City of London before the Lord Mayor the following year. It related to purported threats of murder by other Jews against an immigrant German Jew named Myers because, Myers said, they believed him to have naturalised, converted to Judaism, which was considered unacceptable:

Please you, my lord, I an’t no such a thing; I am a real Jew, and I never was naturalized. They say so to rise [raise?] the kibosh against me, and my vife, vot I vas a valking mid, vhen they comes down upon us. Ve goes reglar to the synagogue, and the gentlemen knows it.

The Sun (London), 15 May 1835.

The Lord Mayor clearly found Myers and his wife to be unreliable witnesses; the defendants described Myers as “the very worst of beggars and imposters”, with Mrs Myers going about in a turban begging in the streets with her children; a spectator claimed to have seen the whole family “as black as chimney sweeps”, a curious echo of the case the previous year, though the darkening of the skin was presumably to make them seem more exotic. Later in his evidence, Myers said he couldn’t swear to Jews having struck him, but he added “They get other Jews to give me the kibosh upon me, and its all the same to me which of the whole set struck me. All I say, is, that me and my poor wife vill be killed at last by them. They are all against us — all the Jews.”

But what is the origin of this strange word? If I am to be boring about it, the most likely answer is that nobody knows for sure: certainly that’s the careful response of most dictionaries. None of the early examples even give us any clear idea what the kibosh actually was, except that it was something unpleasant. It might have been as intangible as the evil eye or as manifest as a bludgeon. The extent of the confusion is demonstrated by the variety of meanings attributed to the word in slang dictionaries later in the century: a bad accident or defeat; rubbish, nonsense, humbug; 18 pence; good style or the height of fashion (“that’s the proper kibosh”) and, in the middle twentieth century, a prison term of 18 months.

The most popular story is that kibosh derives from Yiddish or Hebrew, though the details vary from author to author. The link with the number 18 has led to the theory that it’s from Hebrew chai, whose literal meaning is “life”, but which in the numerological system of gematria, which allocates numbers to letters, means 18. This is why Jews often give cash donations in multiples of 18, symbolising life. Because of this number link, Eric Partridge suggested that kibosh might be a variation on the London slang term fourpenny one, a clip around the ear, which would neatly explain some of the earliest examples.

In this theory, the bosh part is usually assumed to be the slang word for nonsense. This is actually a Turkish word meaning empty or worthless; it came into English as the result of James Justinian Morier’s novel Ayesha; however, this only appeared in 1834, probably too late to influence the creation of kibosh. This also disposes of an alternative suggestion that holds that kibosh is the Turkish word prefixed by ker-, an echoic addition to many words, such as kerflop and kerplunk, that’s intended to imitate the sound of some heavy body falling, or the result of its doing so. A severe objection to this is that the ker- prefix is American and isn’t recorded before the 1830s, so that speculation fails on the dating evidence for both elements.

Another interesting conjecture that has been advocated several times, notably by the Irish poet, Padraic Colum, is that kibosh is Gaelic, from the phrase variously cited as cie báis, caidhp (an) bháis or caidhpín (an) bháis, cap of death, where báis is pronounced “bawsh” and cie is said with a hard initial consonant. The cap is said to have been the one worn by judges when pronouncing sentence of death. However, I can’t find any evidence for this expression.

It is said by some (notably Julian Franklyn) that kibosh has a heraldic origin, being derived from caboshed; this is the heraldic description of the emblem of an animal which is shown full-face, but cut off close to the ears so that no neck shows. It’s hard to see how the shift in usage and sense could have happened.

Might it have been a physical object? Stephen Goranson of the American Dialect Society has suggested that it may be from the Arabic qurbāsh, Turkish qirbāch, or French courbache, which is conventionally spelled as kurbash in English, though intriguingly he has found an example spelled kibosh in a book of 1892. This is a whip about a yard in length, made of hippopotamus or rhinoceros hide. The kurbash was known in English works about Egypt and Turkey before the 1830s, but we may guess that it wasn’t well known to the men and women of the London streets, in which kibosh clearly originated. However, it’s just possible that some immigrants may have had personal acquaintance with it (we know that examples were brought back to Britain by travellers earlier in the nineteenth century).

A newspaper report in the middle of the nineteenth century, which Douglas Wilson has found, is a rare one that actually equates the kibosh with an object. It comes from testimony in the Clerkenwell Police Court in east London in a case in which a clogmaker was set upon by others in the same trade as the result of a union dispute, in which a kibosh was allegedly used as a weapon:

I did not speak to Bamforth. I did not challenge him to fight, nor did I strike him or knock him down. I know what a kybosh is (a laugh). It is a piece of iron about a foot long; but I did not use one.

Lloyds Weekly Newspaper, 14 Oct. 1860.

It’s indeed likely this was a clogmaker’s tool. In 2011 the American researcher David L Gold published a long discussion of kibosh in a Spanish journal, Revista Alicantina de Estudios Ingleses. He had been told that bosh was once a clogmakers’ term for a heated iron bar used to soften and smooth leather. He was unaware of a detailed article on clogmaking late in the nineteenth century, which suggests the term was in fact kibosh:

Take a “kibosh” (this is just a half-round file, with marks ground out, and then polished), and warm it over the gas, being careful not to get it too hot, so as to burn the top, and taking hold of each end with both hands, rub the top all over. This is called “kyboshing.” Having kiboshed your top, get a little size, which is made by dissolving a small piece of glue about the size of a penny-piece in about half a teacupful of water, and with a sponge size your top all over, and let it stand until dry.

Work, 1 Jul. 1893.

This is intriguing, though bothersome, because we then have to account for the ki- prefix, which presents the same difficulties as ker-, and why a specialist technical term from a minor industry more associated with northern England than with London should have become so widely known in the capital. It does however make one wonder whether the original kibosh earlier in the century was a sort of cosh.

Someday perhaps, some earnest researcher will find more information about the word that ties its origin to one of these explanations, or one nobody has yet thought of, which will really put the kibosh on all this speculation.

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Page created 17 Feb 1996; Last updated 27 Mar 2016