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The two main political parties in Britain were severely criticised by a union leader last week for their inflammatory language about refugees, especially their use of the B-word: bogus. It has been used so much, especially in the more strident tabloids and by government ministers, that if you try a word-association test on somebody, the chances are bogus will provoke an automatic response of asylum seeker.

It’s an excellent word to wield as a denigratory weapon, you have to admit: short and blunt with a strong first letter. Until the recent furore its main employment was in headlines — along with wed, ban, quiz and probe it was a word that hardly anybody actually said. Young people here have borrowed the American teen slang use of the word as an all-purpose term of disapproval (via the Bill and Ted and Wayne’s World movies which spread it to the outside world), but we’ve never really noticed the hacker culture sense from which it came. This seems to have begun at Princeton University in the late 1960s, where it meant a thing that was useless, non-functional or incorrect; this led to words like bogosity or bogometer, and so to that wonderful invention the bogon, the elementary particle of bogusness. (If it existed, everyone in Britain would now have radiation sickness.)

It’s fair that Americans should have such fun with the word: they invented it, after all, though there’s considerable doubt about when, why and where. What we do know is that in May 1827 a group of counterfeiters was arrested in Painesville, Ohio. They had an odd apparatus in their possession for stamping out fake coins. Somebody in the crowd attending the arrest called it a bogus, a name which was reported in the local newspaper, the Painesville Telegraph.

That identification by the bystander seems to have been a cry of recognition (a bit of a give-away, you might think) and strongly suggests the word was already well known in certain select circles. The Random House Historical Dictionary of American Slang found an example from thirty years earlier, in a book called Band of Brothers: “Coney means Counterfeit paper money ... Bogus means spurious coin”. So it was a bit of counterfeiters’ slang that was presumably well established by the time the Painesville Telegraph heard about it. The word suddenly became popular in America from about 1850 onwards, quite why I haven’t been able to establish, and has been in the language ever since.

Where it came from is almost a complete mystery. The editor of the paper at the time, 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. It might be linked to the old Devonshire dialect word tantarabobs for the devil, making it a relative of words like bogy.

Other writers of the Victorian period suggested it might have come from the name of an Italian forger named Borghese, but he seems to have appeared on the scene several decades too late, or from bagasse, the refuse of sugar cane after the juice was extracted. I think we can dismiss these — we know a good word for such suggestions, after all.

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Page created 22 Apr 2000