The phrase to put the kibosh on means to quash, to put a stop to; the origin of kibosh is unknown, but that doesn’t mean we don’t have some clues as to where it may have come from.
The earliest citation of the word in the Oxford English Dictionary is from Dickens’s 1836 Sketches by Boz:
“What do you mean by hussies?” interrupted a champion of the other party, who has evinced a strong inclination to get up a branch fight on her own account. ("Hoo-roar," ejaculates a pot-boy in a parenthesis, “put the kye-bosk [sic] on her, Mary.")1
The -sk ending here is curious. Etymologist Anatoly Liberman suggests that Dickens may have misheard the term, or perhaps the word was so new the pronunciation had not yet been settled.2 The Historical Dictionary of American Slang says it is intended to represent Cockney pronunciation.3
But the Dickens quotation is is not the earliest use of the word that has been found. The London newspaper The Observer printed the following on 30 November 1834:
Now the Duke of Vellington as put the “Kibosh” on ‘em, vich they never would have got if they hadn’t passed it.4
This is written in eye-dialect, meant to represent Cockney or some other nonstandard British dialect. (The substitution of V for W is not an indication of German or Yiddish; it is a feature in a number of British dialects.)
In the Supplement to the Century Dictionary, Charles P. G. Scott had this to say about the word:
Origin obscure, but prob. a spontaneous, emphatic word of purposely indefinite character, < ki-, ka, ker-, a vaguely introductory syllable… + *bosh, an emphatic syllable (prob. sometime associated with the historical word bosh, nothing, stuff, nonsense, a word of Turkish origin which came into English use at about the same time). As the word never had a definite meaning, it served as a convenient substitutionary word where emphasis was to be conveyed or precise words were lacking at the moment. Compare the similar vague substitutionary uses of thing, jig, bob, thingumbob, stuff, etc.
The Century Dictionary Supplement goes on to give three definitions for the word:
1. Something indefinite; a thing of any kind not definitely conceived or intended: as, I’ll give him the kibosh. (Slang) [...] 2. The thing in question; the stuff: as, that’s the proper kibosh. (Slang) Hence, specifically—3. The stuff used in filling cracks or giving finish or shadow to architectural sculptures, namely, Portland cement.5
So, Scott advances the reasonable proposition that kibosh is in a league with words like caboodle and canoodle, which add a /kə/ sound to a root for emphasis. Although, with kibosh the stress is on the first syllable, which is not the case with these other words. And the Century Dictionary, as we shall see, misses the most important sense of the word, the use in the phrase put the kibosh on.
The Turkish origin of bosh in Scott’s explanation is a reference to the the 1834 James Morier novel, Ayesha, the Maid of Kars. The Turkish word bosh, meaning “nonsense” or “foolish talk,” is used throughout the novel, which was extremely popular at the time and the route by which the Turkish word entered English:
They are spurious. They are bosh—nothing.6
Given the novel’s popularity, it is not surprising that the word quickly entered into slang, as evidenced by the 1834 Observer article and picked up by Dickens two years later.
There are a couple of popular explanations for the word’s origin that are most definitely wrong.
The first is that it comes from the Hebrew chai ("eighteen) + poshet ("penny"), so kibosh is a trifle, literally “small change.” It sounds good on its face, but the term is not found in Hebrew, and at the time of its coinage, eighteen pence, while not a great deal of money, would not have been considered insignificant. Penny or farthing are the standard measures of trifling amounts in English. The explanation is mere speculation without evidence. Alternatively, it is sometimes suggested, again without evidence, that the word comes from the Yiddish kabas or kabbasten, meaning “to suppress.”7
The second, favored by those who associate all good things with Ireland and invented by Irish poet Padraic Colum, is similarly without evidence. The story goes that kibosh is from the Irish caipín báis, or “cap of death,” a reference to caps filled with hot pitch and used as instruments of torture by the English in Ireland at the turn of the nineteenth century. Again, there is no evidence that this phrase was actually used in Irish—the Irish term appears to have been created after the fact as an explanation for the origin of kibosh—nor is there any evidence for an Irish origin for kibosh.
Scott’s explanation is the most likely, although we can’t definitively say it is the correct origin.
3Historical Dictionary of American Slang, v. II, H–O, edited by Jonathan Lighter (New York: Random House, 1997), 343–44.
4Goranson, Stephen. “"Put the ‘Kibosh on ‘Em” (Antedating, 1834).” ADS-L Email List (2010), http://listserv.linguistlist.org/cgi-bin/wa?A2=ind1005C&L=ADS-L&P=R13874.
5Whitney, William Dwight, and Benjamin Eli Smith. Century Dictionary and Cyclopedia. Edited by Jeffrey A. Triggs and Sara G. Triggs. 2001 Century Dictionary Online ed. New York: The Century Company, 1889-1909.
6OED, 2nd edition, bosh, n3, http://dictionary.oed.com/cgi/entry/50025477
Copyright 1997-2016, by David Wilton