bogus (noun): a press for producing counterfeit coins; a counterfeit coin
bogus (adjective): not real, counterfeit, existing in order to deceive
bogus (adjective, 21st Century): bad, wrong, inappropriate
Bogus is a potentially expensive word. Back in 2008, the science writer Simon Singh wrote an opinion piece for The Guardian newspaper, entitled “Beware The Spinal Trap“, in which he described the absence of evidence for some of the claims made by chiropractors. In the article he made a specific claim about the British Chiropractic Association:
This organisation is the respectable face of the chiropractic profession and yet it happily promotes bogus treatments.
The BCA brought a libel action against Singh. The Guardian subsequently reported the findings of the preliminary hearing:
Mr Justice Eady gave a preliminary ruling on the meaning of the words used in Singh’s piece. He held that the phrase implied the association was being consciously dishonest. Singh yesterday denied he intended any such meaning, but said such an interpretation made it very difficult for him to fight his case in court as he had planned. “If we go to trial it’s almost impossible for me to defend the article, because it’s something I never meant in the first place.”
Since Singh was surprised by the ruling, it’s evident that he had not intended his use of the word to imply “existing in order to deceive”—which is the original meaning of the adjective, referring back to its connection to the production of counterfeit coins. Presumably Singh had intended one of the word’s milder modern meanings, implying wrongness or inappropriateness, but without the baggage of any deceitfulness. Whereas it was always on the cards that a High Court judge with a well-thumbed dictionary would adhere to the older meaning. And so it turned out. Eady judged that:
Bogus treatments equate to quack remedies; that is to say they are dishonestly presented to a trusting and, in some respects perhaps, vulnerable public as having proven efficacy in the treatment of certain conditions or illnesses, when it is known that there is nothing to support such claims.
Singh (already on the sharp end of £100,000 in legal fees) appealed the judgement, Eady’s ruling was overturned, and the BCA subsequently withdrew their libel action. The finding of the Court of Appeal is interesting, since it deliberately steers clear of defining the word “bogus”:
Ms Rogers [representing the BCA] has understandably not sought to make a major issue of the word “bogus”. In its context the word is more emphatic than assertive.
But the written ruling then goes on to use the word repeatedly in contexts that make it clear the Appeal Court judges are using it in the way Singh used it, and not the way Eady interpreted it.
Meanwhile, British Chiropractic Association vs. Singh had become something of a cause célèbre, fueling widespread debate over the potential use of libel laws to stifle free speech, particularly in matters of science. It ultimately led to a revision of the libel laws in England and Wales, the Defamation Act 2013. But I do wonder if any of that would ever have happened if Singh hadn’t settled on that fateful little word bogus.
Something that is bogus has bogusness; it behaves bogusly. But the origin of the word, as applied to a counterfeit coin press, is a little obscure. The Oxford English Dictionary relays a convoluted but pleasing story concerning the word’s first appearance in print, in the Painesville (Ohio) Telegraph of 6 July 1827:
Mr. Eber D. Howe, who was then editor of that paper, describes in his Autobiography (1878) the discovery of such a piece of mechanism in the hands of a gang of coiners at Painesville, in May 1827; it was a mysterious-looking object, and some one in the crowd styled it a ‘bogus’, a designation adopted in the succeeding numbers of the paper. Dr. Willard considers this to have been short for tantrabogus, a word familiar to him from his childhood, and which in his father’s time was commonly applied in Vermont to any ill-looking object; he points out that tantarabobs is given in Halliwell as a Devonshire word for the devil.
If a tantrabogus was and “ill-looking object” in the northeastern USA, that probably explains its use as a name for a horse in rural Maine during the early twentieth century. But I do feel sorry for Tantrabogus Helvey (born c.1805), who turns up on various genealogy websites. He must have been a very ugly baby.
The OED ties the Devonshire tantarabobs, the Devil, to a little group of words signifying evil spirits of one kind or another, all deriving from Middle English bugge, “ghost”, which I’ll come back to in just a second. James Halliwell’s Dictionary of Archaic and Provincial Words, Obsolete Phrases, Proverbs and Ancient Customs from the Fourteenth Century (1847) also lists tantara, with the meaning “a confused noise”—so tantarabobs was presumably a noisy evil spirit. The OED says that tantara (together with its more elaborate synonym, taratantara) imitates and denotes the sound of a trumpet or drum. Taratantara is also used, metaphorically, for “loud, extravagant, or pretentious talk”. To taratantarize is to sound a trumpet, or to make a sound like a trumpet.
Now, back to those evil spirits with names derived from Middle English bugge. First, there is bug, which was a goblin of sorts. (Whether or not that bug gave its name to the insect bugs seems to be a topic of debate.) A variant form was the bugbear, a creature in the form of a bear that was supposedly sent specifically to devour naughty children. It subsequently came to designate any source of imaginary dread, and then its meaning softened towards mere sources of annoyance. Bugbeardom is the collection of all imaginary fears; someone or something that behaves in an annoying manner is bugbearish. And a bugaboo is … well, a bug that goes “Boo!”—another imaginary terror.
From bug we get bog—another word for an evil spirit or a source of imaginary dread. To boggle is to jump as if you’ve just seen an evil spirit. It was originally said of skittish horses, which were describes as being bogglish. The verb then went through a series of evolutions, all now extinct: “to raise objections, to demur”; “to quibble, to equivocate”; “to hesitate”; “to bungle”. We’re now left only with its presence in the stock phrase “to boggle the mind”, which probably harks all the way back to those skittish horses, in describing a state of uncomprehending amazement.
Adding the augmentative suffix -ard gives us the name of another goblin, or source of imaginary dread—the boggard or boggart. A gloomy place, potentially haunted by boggarts, is said to be boggarty.
Adding a diminutive suffix gives us bogy or bogey—again originally an evil spirit, again now used for imaginary sources of dread. If you promote imaginary sources of dread, you exhibit bogyism; if you are much affected by imaginary sources of dread, you suffer from bogyphobia.
The Devil himself was Old Bogey or the Bogey Man, and he ruled over bogydom—Hell. He seems to have managed to work his name, in this form, into the game of golf. The OED relishes another convoluted story:
One popular song at least has left its permanent effect on the game of golf. That song is ‘The Bogey Man’. In 1890 Dr. Thos. Browne, R.N., the hon. secretary of the Great Yarmouth Club, was playing against a Major Wellman, the match being against the ‘ground score’, which was the name given to the scratch value of each hole. The system of playing against the ‘ground score’ was new to Major Wellman, and he exclaimed, thinking of the song of the moment, that his mysterious and well-nigh invincible opponent was a regular ‘bogey-man’. The name ‘caught on’ at Great Yarmouth, and to-day ‘Bogey’ is one of the most feared opponents on all the courses that acknowledge him.
So bogey was originally the par score for a hole—only later did the name attach itself to a score that is one over par.
As an object of dread, it’s no surprise that bogey also came to be a slang word for a policeman and, during the Second World War, an enemy aircraft. Quite how it came to designate a piece of dried nasal mucus is a mystery, though.
Finally, in Scotland, we have another diminutive of bog—bogle. And once again a word originally associated with evil spirits has come to be associated with mere imaginary fears. And from there, to an association with scarecrows. There can be very few Scottish children who didn’t love the word tattie-bogle (“potato-bogle”, “scarecrow”) from the moment they first heard it.