That Origin of Bogus? It’s Probably Bogus.

I’m old enough to remember when the word “bogus” was at the fringe of colloquial English, a slang term that few respectable people would consider using. Of course, it shouldered its way into the circle around the campfire of “acceptable use” some time ago. But when I recently heard it used by a sitting member of Congress, it got me thinking: where did this word come from and, if there’s a particular moment, when did it come in from the cold?

Bogus” if you’re unfamiliar with the word, means fake or false or untrue, also counterfeit or deceptive. You might also encounter it in context as meaning unfair or disappointing. They’re all (arguably) shades of the same general meaning. When looking for an origin, the major dictionaries aren’t terribly helpful: OED notes a bogus as a counterfeiting press or the coins it produced (from the 1820s), spreading into adjective use (from “that’s a bogus” to “that’s a bogus coin“) fairly quickly. Their citations show it shifting to a more generic ‘falsified‘ by no later than the 1860s (although the majority of their citations, even into the 1940s, carry the counterfeit sense). Merriam-Webster and American Heritage both concur, and (surprisingly) there’s no entry for this in Garner.

Personal knowledge led me to believe that bogus was little known outside of surfer and stoner culture until the 1982 film Fast Times at Ridgemont High. It advanced from there to a film title in 1991’s Bill & Ted’s Bogus Journey (who can forget sparkling dialogue such as “I can’t believe we just melvined death!”). But Bill & Ted is almost a proof of the still-fringe nature of the word: it wouldn’t have worked as the title if it hadn’t been outsider dialect. On the other hand, it’s also proof that the word was moving to acceptability: it couldn’t have been used in the title if it was too far out there and no one understood it. I don’t think it would be going out on a limb to mark that period as the transition: the word was still beyond the pale in 1982, unusual but acceptable by 1991, and accepted in common speech by 1993.

I didn’t just pull 1993 out of a hat. It took some research to come to that conclusion.

Relying on personal knowledge is a weak tactic, especially where English language use and etymology is concerned. So I began at the beginning, which in this case was the use that piqued my interest. It was this two-fer: bogus used by two US senators in a single day (this from NPR, but I’m sure you can find it in other media sources):

SENATOR JOHN CORNYN: Now, this bogus story you’ve heard about language being slipped in the bill they didn’t know was there is just that. It’s completely bogus. Each of these Democrats has highly skilled professional staff, and they themselves weren’t born last night, didn’t fall off a turnip truck.

SENATOR DIANNE FEINSTEIN: It isn’t bogus. I spend a lot of time doing what I do.

There’s bipartisanship for you.

It didn’t take long to find other uses on Capitol Hill. The most relevant, in the Congressional Record, seemed to be one in 1993 (which is why I noted that date).

But citations go much farther back: documented literary references, according to everyone’s favorite written-record search tool (Google Ngrams) suggest that the word has been used regularly (if infrequently) since the 1850s. It seems to first appear solidly in the 1840s (all but a few earlier references are suspect). There was a slow but mostly steady increase in its use until about 1985, after which the increase was sharper. Its modern peak was 2004 (but bear in mind that Ngrams data is only reliable through 2008).

Oddly, my (imperfect) research suggests that for much of its existence bogus has been popular in the legal profession, and might almost have been considered professional jargon at times. By the early 1990s, though, it was definitely running free and appeared in several book titles (and at least one additional film).

But just where did the word come from? Like a lot of uniquely American slang, there are several stories, which all point in different directions. And like some other American slang words, none of these origins is satisfactory.

The usual suspects on the Internet have made the usual attempts to uncover more about this word, and they’ve come up (as usual) with the same information, stretched and contorted in the usual ways. I’ve done a little extra digging and have a little to add.

Nearly every source will tell you the same handful of “facts.” These might be accurate, but I’m putting “facts” in quotes to indicate some suspicion on my part. They’ll tell you that the word was first recorded in print in 1828 (or 1824, or 1823, or even 1797). The word was definitely in use by the 1850s. Among other documented uses of the modern sense, I located a medical journal dating to 1857; a use in the record of the Michigan House of Representatives from 1855; and even a use in a book title (Americanism Contrasted with Foreignism, Romanism, and Bogus Democracy) from 1856. It’s used in a letter from 1838 contained in the records of the 26th US Congress (published in 1841).

All of the citations I’ve followed up that predate the 1840’s seem to fall into three categories: they’re either proper names (the Bogus tribe in central Asia; a creek called Bogus Run), the sources aren’t in English, or they’re transcription or OCR errors in electronic documents. This suggests that the dates of all the origin stories — pointing to the late 1700s or early 1800s — are about right.

The counterfeiting press and the counterfeit coin origin seem to be the default starting point: those things existed and are documented. But they don’t explain where the term itself came from.

One suggestion is that it derives from “bogey“, as in bogeyman (often “boogieman” in the US), a menacing spirit of some kind (but not the malicious bogle of Scottish folklore). It’s not very compelling because the uses don’t align, and there’s little or no evidence.

Another story is that it’s somehow derived from bagasse, the pulp left over from sugarcane production: “bogus” was, in some parts of America, the name for a type of liquor derived from rum (another sugarcane product). That’s not terribly convincing, but it has a whiff of plausibility.

Other theories suppose that it derives from “boko,” said to mean “to fake” in the Hausa language of West Africa, or “bogue,” meaning “fake” in Louisiana French. Both have a nice ring to them, and I’d love to declare one or the other definitive, but neither is well supported (if at all).

An interesting text called The Living Age (volume 95, 1867), goes with the counterfeit and counterfeit machine origin, but traces the word itself to a corruption of the name Borghese, first into Borgus and from there to Bogus. The documentor of this theory (one “E. Littell”) seems to like the word and felt that it (along with skedaddle and deadheads) would inevitably become acceptable British English. This origin story, dated to 1837, would totally destroy the next origin story (below) because it suggests an entirely distinct and personal derivation and originates in a different part of the country. (The Living Age is a source I hadn’t run across before; it appears to be a collection of articles from other sources; this one is “Inroads Upon English,” from Blackwood’s Magazine; the author is not credited.)

Strangely, one of the most commonly regurgitated (and swallowed) origin stories is also the one that seems least likely: that the word derives from “tantrabogus,” allegedly a slang term for a menacing object, usually credited to Vermont. The circular nature of the references (all point to a single assertion, not made until late in the 19th century) make me deeply suspicious, but this origin theory is difficult to disprove. Ngrams can’t find a single use in print of this strange word (“tantrabogus,” or numerous variant spellings) across the past five centuries. In any form (including some irrelevant ones), Google has it showing up on the Internet an astoundingly small number of times. All of the contextually correct references refer to the apocryphal “bogus–tantrabogus” link. Given those problems, as well as the inherently mischievous nature of 19th century American newspaper editors — if they didn’t have enough news to fill the page, they’d just make stuff up — this origin seems unlikely.

The two words didn’t even have similar meanings at the time. It would be like overhearing someone use the word “aerie” and chiming in to say “well, we have this word ‘cemetary‘ back where I come from, so ‘aerie‘ must be a shortened form of it.” When it comes to language use, I know better than to dismiss a possible etymology outright. But the tantrabogus origin doesn’t pass the smell test for me.

This page on World Wide Words is a good example of how these references are all circular, citing the same story but never showing original textual evidence; a noteworthy addition to the story here is the mention of ‘tantarabobos‘ as Devonshire dialect; but tracing that a little throws up even more smoke: there’s a claim that tantarabobus, evolving to bogus, is actually from Arkansas. Take that, Vermont.

After dwelling in obscurity for decades, bogus was revived in mid 20th-century surf and beach jargon, or perhaps as a regionalism, or perhaps as hacker jargon if you believe World Wide Words (spoiler alert: there were no hackers in the 1960s) and gained more currency. In modern (post-1970s) use, bogus has evolved and moved from meaning false, deceptive, or counterfeit, to also meaning simply unfair or unpleasant or disappointing. And it’s managed to enter the mainstream.

Where does that leave us with bogus? Just about where we started: we know what it means, but not where it comes from. It’s safe to say that it’s an Americanism that’s been with us for around 200 years (give or take a couple of decades). It’s equally safe to say that it had a specific meaning related to counterfeiting, and that from there it generalized.

But where does the word come from? There are too many possibilities, and they can’t all be correct. That means only one thing for sure: most of what people will tell you about bogus is just plain bogus.

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About thebettereditor

Chris holds a BA degree in history from the University of Virginia and a Master of Fine Arts (MFA) Degree in writing from the University of Southern Maine (Stonecoast). He has worked extensively with professional and semi-professional writers and enthusiastic amateurs for about 20 years. He has several years experience in scientific publishing, but has also worked in information technology, insurance, health care, and education (he taught writing at the university level for a number of years). Since 2011, he's also specialized in helping small business meet their writing and editing needs on a budget.
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4 Responses to That Origin of Bogus? It’s Probably Bogus.

  1. Travis Bird says:

    This is a heinously bogus article, dude. Most excellent.

    About ‘hacking’: I agree that the recent commonplace use is not from the 60’s but the original sense of ‘hacking away’ at something, as in ‘cobbling together’ or improvising was in use in computer programming. A ‘hacker’ was a programmer who could solve coding problems by innovative means. A ‘hack’ was also (and perhaps still is) something constructed from scratch to serve some niche purpose in engineering/electronics. I’ve even heard and read of such an improvised contraption being called a ‘bogus’.

  2. jerrypriore says:

    I love language and etymology and thoroughly enjoyed your article. Thank you.

  3. If you don’t think there were hackers in California in the 1960’s, then you haven’t read “Exploding the Phone: The Untold Story of the Teenagers and Outlaws who Hacked Ma Bell”, by Phil Lapsley. Actually, 1960s California phone-system hacker culture provides a fairly plausible explanation for the widespread reemergence of a previously little-used term. Some were more interested in understanding the way the phone system worked. Others were just bored teenagers who discovered an interesting social outlet.

    As Lapsley describes in Chapter 11, “as early as 1964 teenagers had begun to discover an interesting quirk of the telephone system. Certain telephone exchanges in some areas of the country, notably Los Angeles and San Jose in California, had busy signals that were shared among all callers.” Kids from many different backgrounds, including blind kids who were otherwise relatively isolated, found themselves talking with one another, using often colorful pseudonyms, using various types of more sophisticated ways to hack the phone system, sometimes sharing hacking tips, other times just chatting about whatever. Pranks and trickery were the order of the day, and many of these kids were very smart, very well-read. Phone “phreaking” provided early inspiration to Steve Jobs and Steve Wozniak, among others.

    It’s easy to imagine the term “bogus” being revived and employed widely by this crowd, and it’s also easy to imagine terms used on these chat lines spreading rapidly, not only to the dedicated phone phreaks, but also to the wider teenage culture of the region.

    • Hi, Matthew. Interesting info there, even if it doesn’t add to the deep origins of the word. I’ll have to look that book up some time.
      (…in my defense, I wasn’t including analog phone hackers in my flip comment about there being no hackers in the ’60s. I was restricting the definition to the modern version.)

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