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What Does It Mean to ‘Put the Kibosh’ on Something?

People have multiple theories about the origin of "putting the kibosh" on something, but one is most likely correct.

By
Samantha Enslen, Writing for
4-minute read
Episode #812
The Quick And Dirty

To “put the kibosh” on something means to stop an activity. “Kibosh” is believed to come from the Arabic word “qurbāsh,” referring to a whip used for punishment.

Have you ever heard someone say they were going to “put the kibosh” on something? Did you ever wonder what they meant, or what a “kibosh” is? 

Believe it or not, this has been a long-standing mystery of the English language. Multiple theories have been proposed, but none could be proven. Recently, however, three scholars seem to have gotten to the bottom of it. (2)

Here’s the story.

‘To Put the Kibosh’ on Means to Shut Something Down

First of all, to “put the kibosh” on something means you’re shutting it down. You’re putting the lid on a plan before it can take off. Or you’re stopping an activity that’s already underway.  

For example, parents might “put the kibosh” on their teenager’s plan to throw a wild party. Or a librarian might “put the kibosh” on patrons who are munching on burgers and fries while they’re handling books. 

This word first showed up in print in 1826, in a London newspaper. And not too long after, etymologists started speculating about where it came from.  

5 (Probably Debunked) Theories on the Origin of ‘Kibosh’

Theory number one was that “kibosh” was of Yiddish origin; that it was related to the Hebrew word “kāḇaš,” meaning to subject, subdue, or tread down. (9)

Theory two was that it was related to the Turkish word “bosh,” meaning “empty or worthless.” That word came into fashion around the same time that “kibosh” did, in the 1830s. It appeared in a popular romance titled “Ayesha, Maid of Kars,” that told of the intrigues of female life in Turkey. (7,8,9)

To see this connection, you can image a stodgy English gentleman saying “Bosh! Stuff and nonsense!” about the butler’s plan to serve bread and butter with tea, instead of cake. And the gentleman saying he would “put the kibosh” on that plan straightaway. 

Theory three is that “kibosh” comes from the Gaelic “caidhp bháis,” meaning “coif of death.” This referred to various things: the hood an executioner wore when he mounted the scaffold; the head covering a judge wore when pronouncing the death sentence; or the cap put on a body before it was buried. 

It was also connected to a gruesome form of torture known as a “pitch-cap,” in which a hat filled with boiling tar was placed on someone’s head. This cruel technique was used by the English military during the Irish rebellion of 1798. Game of Thrones fans will see an analogy between the pitch-cap and the “golden crown” that Khal Drogo placed on Viserys’ head. (5,6,9)

Theory four is that “kibosh” comes from the French word “caboche,” an informal word for head, and the English word “caboshe” that came from it. To “caboshe” means to cut off the head of a deer right behind the horns—not keeping any neck at all! You could see how this violent verb could be extended to mean beheading any sort of idea at all.  (5,6,9)

Theory five is that this word came from a tool that shoemakers used when making clogs. Their “kibosh” was an “iron bar about a foot long that, when hot, [was] used to soften and smooth leather.” A long, heated, metal bar would indeed be effective at kiboshing just about anything. Nonetheless, the scholar who first proposed this theory has pretty much admitted he no longer thinks it is correct. (1,5,6,9)

The Current Theory on the Origin of ‘Kibosh’: It’s Related to an Arabic Word for ‘Whip’

Theory six—and the one that now seems to be most reliable— is that “kibosh” can be traced to the Arabic word “qurbāsh,” a whip made of hide. (2) It was sometimes made of hippopotamus or rhinoceros hide, and in all cases, it was used as an instrument of punishment. This Arabic word could have been brought to England by immigrants. That would make sense, because the first uses of the word seem to have been in the lower classes of London. 

As to why “kibosh” rose from being just another slang term, to a phrase we still use today, is suggested by three scholars who recently published an entire book on the word “kibosh.” 

The authors relate how in 1834, a Cockney chap was brought into court for violating the 1834 Chimney Sweeps Act, a law intended to stop young children from being put into service as chimney sweeps. According to the book, the fellow had an outburst after the trial in which he complained about the British Whig party and used the expression “to put the kibosh on,” speaking the whole time in an “unmistakable Cockney accent.” 

His words were reprinted in newspapers all over England, and soon all types of politicians were talking about “putting the kibosh on the Whigs.” (2,3)

The word has continued to be popular up through today. In fact, a search of Google Ngrams, which shows how frequently words are used in books, shows “kibosh” being used regularly since the mid-1800s—and spiking in use since 1980. 

In short, recent scholars have “put the kibosh” on older theories of where this word came from. Our best guess today is that it’s related to “qurbāsh,” an Arabic word for “whip.”

Sources

  1. Cohen, Gerald, Stephen Goranson, and Matthew Little. Comments on Etymology, May 2019: Kibosh Update #4 (Compilation). Vol. 48, No. 8.  Missouri University of Science & Technology, accessed February 22, 2021.
  2. Cohen, Gerald, Stephen Goranson, and Matthew Little. Origin of Kibosh: Routledge Studies in Etymology. Taylor & Francis, 2018, accessed February 22, 2021.
  3. Dodson, Steve. The Bookshelf: Origin of Kibosh. LanguageHat Blog, June 12, 2018, accessed February 22, 2021. 
  4. Green, Jonathan. Kibosh. Green’s Dictionary of Slang, online edition, subscription required, accessed February 22, 2021.
  5. Liberman, Anatoly. Three recent theories of “kibosh.” OUPblog, August 14, 2013, accessed February 22, 2021.
  6. Liberman, Anatoly. Unable to Put the Kibosh on a Hard Word. OUPblog, May 19, 2010, accessed February 22, 2021.
  7. Morier, James Justinian. Ayesha, The Maid of Kars. London, R. Bentley, 1834, accessed February 22, 2021.
  8. New Work by the Author of “Zohrab” and “Hajja Baba.” The Morning Chronicle, London, Greater London, England, 26 May 1834, Page 4, accessed February 22, 2021.
  9. Oxford English Dictionary, online edition. Oxford University Press. Bosh, caboche, kibosh, kurbash, pitch-cap (subscription required, accessed February 22, 2021).
  10. UK Parliament. Children and Chimneys. Parliament.UK, accessed February 22, 2021. 

Image courtesy of Shutterstock.

About the Author

Samantha Enslen, Writing for Grammar Girl

Samantha Enslen is an award-winning writer who has worked in publishing for more than 20 years. She runs Dragonfly Editorial, an agency that provides copywriting, editing, and design for scientific, medical, technical, and corporate materials. Sam is the vice president of ACES, The Society for Editing, and is the managing editor of Tracking Changes, ACES' quarterly journal.