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Kibosh: A Common Word with No Definitive Origin

The phrase "put the kibosh on" is one of those colloquial sayings that spans generations and permeates every corner of popular culture. "There may be some political undertones to the performance, but the NFL likely put the kibosh on anything too incendiary," Timothy Rapp writes for The Bleacher Report, in his predictions for Justin Timberlake's Super Bowl halftime show. About pending DACA negotiations in Congress, The Los Angeles Times Editorial Board writes, "Chief of Staff John Kelly and advisor Stephen Miller reportedly persuaded the president to put the kibosh on bipartisan deals on DACA." There's no questionÔøΩ the phrase is ingrained in the English language. But its beginnings are less certain.

Merriam-Webster defines kibosh as "something that serves as a check or stopÔøΩ usually used in the phrase put the kibosh on". There seems to be a consensus that Charles Dickens was the first to use the word, in the 1836 book Sketches by Boz. He wrote, "'Hoo-roa,' ejaculates a pot-boy in a parenthesis, ÔøΩput the kye-bosh on her, Mary.'" Here, the word was clearly altered to reflect the character's dialect.

However, etymology blog Grammarphobia challenges the origins of kibosh. Green's Dictionary of Slang cites its first use two years earlier in the news. A similarly dialect-heavy excerpt describes how the Duke of Wellington "put the ÔøΩKibosh' on ÔøΩem" in battle.

But even with a relatively clear idea of when the word was first used, there's still an active debate about how the word originated. Theories over the years have pinpointed its beginnings in Hebrew, Yiddish, French, German, and Turkish roots.

The Oxford University Press blog recently examined a handful of theories about kibosh, courtesy of a few prominent etymologists, each with its own twist. J. Peter Maher ties kibosh back to the French word caboche, which is an informal word for head. Caboche evolved into the English word cabosh, which meant cutting off a stag's head behind the ears. Cabosh was then adopted by the Cockneys and morphed into its modern spelling and meaning.

Stephen Goranson tells OUPblog the word was derived from kurbash, a long whip made of hippopotamus or rhinoceros hide and used in some parts of the Middle East. David L. Gold argues kibosh stems from a word with the same spelling that describes the iron bar clogmakers use to smooth leather.

The three theories vary greatly, and after reading their work, we're no closer to pinning down an origin story. However, Goranson, along with Gerald Cohen and Matthew Little, hopes to settle things once and for all with Origin of Kibosh, a full-length research study that hit bookstore shelves in October 2017. The book builds on Goranson's kurbash theory and details several instances throughout history in which kibosh was used to describe lashings.

It appears we might be closer to a solid back story for kibosh.

The word seems to have more in common with modern slang than the classic English words we've featured here in the past. Not only because its etymology is not definitively traced to a specific language but also because it simply appeared in news and literature without explanation and gained steadily in popularity over two centuries. Though we'll continue to use the word in everyday language, it seems we'll never put the kibosh on searching for the word's true beginnings.