The Grammarphobia Blog

Who put the kibosh on us?

Q: Why do we put “the kibosh” on something? I haven’t been able to find a good explanation for this on the Web.

A: Well, we can tell you a thing or two about “kibosh,” but we can’t give you a definitive explanation of its origin.

The word is usually seen, as you point out, in the expression “put the kibosh on” (meaning to put an end to something, finish it off, or put a damper on it).

The usage first showed up, as far as we know, in London during the 1830s. The earliest example in Green’s Dictionary of Slang is from a Nov. 30, 1834, issue of the News:

“Ah! said Smith, as he left the office, this here hact vos the work of the ‘Vigs,’ and now the Duke of Wellington as put the ‘Kibosh’ on ’em, vich they never would have got, if they hadn’t passed it; that’s vot’s floor’d ’em.”

The word appeared a short time later in Charles Dickens’s Sketches by Boz (1836). The quotation, cited in the Oxford English Dictionary:

“ ‘Hoo-roa,’ ejaculates a pot-boy in a parenthesis, ‘put the kye-bosh on her, Mary.’ ” (Later editions have “kye-bosk,” the OED notes.)

Other spellings turn up in later OED citations.

Here’s one from a definition given in an 1846 issue of Swell’s Night Guide: “Kybosh on, to put the, to turn the tables on any person, to put out of countenance.”

And Punch, in 1856, printed it this way: “To put the cibosh upon.”

The word, as we know, put down vigorous roots in America. Here’s an 1889 quotation from The New York World, cited in Green’s Dictionary:

“From the present aspect of affairs it would seem that Mike has effectually Put the kibosh on adverse public opinion.”

“Kibosh” has also been used as a verb. But its usual form is the noun—thanks, probably, to the persistence of the phrase “put the kibosh on.”

The OED’s entry for “kibosh” says “origin obscure,” but adds, “It has been stated to be Yiddish or Anglo-Hebraic.”

Green’s Dictionary mentions (but with a question mark) a possible origin in “Heb. or Yid. kabas, kabasten, to suppress.”

That’s the most popular theory of the origin of “kibosh,” and in the end it may prove to be right.

The ethnic tone of that first published usage might hold a clue.

If that newspaper was (rather disrespectfully) quoting a Jewish Londoner, perhaps “kibosh” did originate with Hebrew or Yiddish.

And perhaps Yiddish-speaking immigrants brought the word to America later in the century.

Then again, linguists have pointed out that the speech rendered in that London newspaper might have been characteristic of Cockney or another native dialect of the time, as well as Yiddish or German.

In fact, other theories have been proposed about  the origin of “kibosh.”

As Green’s notes, Jack London wrote in 1897 that “kibosh” meant “utter discomfiture” in the Chinook language.

It’s also been suggested that the Irish Gaelic phrase cie báis (“cap of death”) might be the origin.

The Gaelic pronunciation sounds very similar to the usual pronunciation of “kibosh”: kye-bosh (either syllable can be stressed).

Yet another theory is that it comes from a word in Middle High German, kiebe (carrion).

Someday we may know the answer!

Check out our books about the English language