English English language Etymology Slang Usage Word origin

Bogus origins

Q: I keep seeing “bogus” used in ways that seem too colloquial. Somehow saying Colin Powell made bogus claims about WMDs just doesn’t possess the right connotation. So is my claim of excessive informality correct or bogus?

A: We’ve checked seven standard dictionaries and none of them suggest that “bogus” is anything but standard English when used to mean counterfeit, fake, or spurious.

But one of the sources, The American Heritage Dictionary of the English Language (5th ed.), considers “bogus” slang when used in two less common senses:

(1) “Not conforming with what one would hope to be the case; disappointing or unfair” and (2) when used as an interjection “to indicate disagreement or displeasure with another’s actions or a circumstance.”

American Heritage gives this example of the first slang sense: “It’s bogus that you got to go to the party, and I had to stay home.” It doesn’t have any example for the second.

Although “bogus” is considered standard English today when used in its false sense, the word did originate in the late 1700s as US slang.

The Random House Historical Dictionary of American Slang says the term was originally underworld argot for “counterfeit coins; counterfeit money,” and in the early 1800s it came to mean “a machine for coining counterfeit money.”

The earliest Random House citation for “bogus” is from Band of Brothers (circa 1798): “Coney means Counterfeit paper money … Bogus means spurious coins, &c.”

The slang dictionary’s first example of “bogus” used for a machine to make phony money is from the July 6, 1827, issue of the Painesville (Ohio) Telegraph: “He never procured the casting of a Bogus at one of our furnaces.”

The earliest Random House cite for “bogus” used as an adjective to mean fraudulent or phony is from The Banditti of the Prairies, an 1855 book by Edward Bonney about his work as a private detective to expose criminal gangs in Illinois:

“I have a little bogus gold but have been dealing mostly in horses.”

The Oxford English Dictionary has several earlier citations for the adjective, including this one from A New Home—Who’ll Follow? (1839), by Caroline Matilda Kirkland, writing under the pen name Mrs. Mary Clavers:

“And in the course of the Tinkerville investigation the commissioners had ascertained by the aid of hammer and chisel, that the boxes of the ‘real stuff’ which had been so loudly vaunted, contained a heavy charge of broken glass and tenpenny nails, covered above and below with half-dollars, principally ‘bogus.’ ” (We’ve expanded on the citation.)

The OED says “many guesses have been made, and ‘bogus’ derivations circumstantially given” about the origin of the word.

The dictionary notes, for example, that Eber D. Howe, editor of the Painesville, Ohio, newspaper cited above, wrote in his 1878 autobiography that “bogus” might “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.”

We suspect, however, that Howe’s suggestion as well as several others we’ve seen (a forger named Borghese, the French word bagasse, etc.) are bogus.

Help support the Grammarphobia Blog with your donation.
And check out
our books about the English language.