My column on presidential humbug (“Presidential humbug at the APEC CEO summit”, Manila Times, Nov. 19, 2015) provoked many reactions and comments, some of which illuminated for me aspects and angles on the subject that I have not explored.
The most intriguing of these were the comments of several readers, who said that “humbug” is deliciously close in sound and meaning to the Filipino word, “hambog.” They pointed out to me that while “humbug” and “hambog” have different meanings, they are plainly related. And they said the two are clearly mixed in the person and presidency of BS Aquino.
Others pointed out to me the spectacle of President Aquino flying to Kuala Lumpur to attend the Asean summit, and then immediately launching a statement warning China, “The world is watching you” – this, just a day after hosting the APEC leaders meeting, where Aquino did not say a word about the South China Sea row.
And then there was this reader who asked me whether Mayor Rody Duterte’s fresh announcement of his candidacy for president, after so many denials, and his many statements about dumping people in Manila Bay are a prime example of humbug. He slyly reminded me that surely BS Aquino does not have a patent or copyright on humbug in this country.
Hambog and humbug compared
“Hambog” is part of the vocabulary of nearly all Philippine languages, from Tagalog, to Cebuano, to Hiligaynon, to Waray, to Bikolano, and who knows what else.
In his authoritative Tagalog-English and English-Tagalog dictionaries, the Redemptorist lexicographer Fr. Leo James English, C.Ss.R, provides the following revealing definition of “hambog” and its noun form, kahambugan:
Hambog: 1. Adj (1) boastful, speaking too highly about one self; a boastful fellow: (2) proud, vain; (3) arrogant, self-opinionated; stuck-up.
Kahambugan, paghahambog. n. (1) boast, boasting, bragging; (2) self-love, conceit; (3) vainglory; an extreme pride in oneself.
“Humbug” in contrast, connotes misrepresentation, deception or cheating.
Webster’s Third New International Dictionary contains the following entries on humbug: for the noun’s head sense, “something designed to deceive and mislead” (with cross-references to quackery, hoax, fraud, and imposture); for the verb, “impose on” (with cross-references to deceive, cajole, and hoax); for its application to a humbugger, “a person who usually willfully deceives or misleads others as to his true condition, qualities, or attitudes, one who passes himself off as something that he is not” (with cross-references to sham, hypocrite, and impostor).”
From years of observing these two words used in literature, journalism, and politics, I can attest that a humbug can be hambog; and a hambog can be a humbug. They constantly socialize in public.
The prevalence of humbug
The concept of humbug is so weighty, the English-American philosopher, Max Black, devoted years of research to its analysis and explication. He distilled his findings in an authoritative paper on humbug entitled, “the Prevalence of Humbug” (you will find it online); it served as the title piece of a book of essays.
Black’s study is authoritative, exhaustive, and witty. No instance of humbug, and no humbugger can pass through it undetected.
In The Prevalence of Humbug, Professor Black bluntly describes humbug as a form of mischief.
He sought to (1) provide a satisfying analysis of the concept; (2) identify the mischief that humbug can cause, (3)consider ways of curbing the production of humbug; and (4) come up with a reasonable and satisfactory definition of the concept.
The Russian writer and doctor Anton Chekhov said that “humbug” is “a disease; in Latin it is called morbus fraudulentus.”
Morbus fraudulentus — literally, “the fraudulent disease” — is not listed in manuals of pathology, although the disorder is endemic, infectious, and seriously injurious to thought, feeling, and action. .
Similarly, the great Irish writer George Bernard Shaw dismissed as humbug talks between the British prime minister and the American President Hoover, designed to bring the two peoples together.
When asked why, Shaw replied: “Because, generally speaking, Englishmen and Americans do not like one another. Now they are asked to pretend that they do. And this pretense of being affectionate cousins is as dangerous as poison.”
Bernard Shaw, says Black, provided one antidote to humbug. He advocated telling the humbugger immediately after he utters a humbug: “Do you really believe that?” or “Do you really mean that?”
In one part of his study, Black writes; “What is the prima facie charge against a speaker accused of humbug? Well, some of the words that immediately suggest themselves are pretense, pretentiousness, affectation, insincerity, and deception.”
The point that insincerity and deception go together in humbug is telling.
Humbug functionally and effectively implants false belief. The most serious indictment of humbug is that it tends progressively to adulterate speech and thought. It leads to the “distortion of values, the insidious numbing of what we once knew without question as true or false.”
The constant practice of self-deception, Black warns, “may produce a character that cheats as effortlessly as a bird sings: the mask eventually becomes ingrown, fits the face as closely as a death mask.”
This is the presidential image before us as Aquino winds down his presidency.
Humbug, says Black, is an insidious and detestable evil that should be exposed.
For short-term remedies, Black recommends Shaw’s probe — the deliberately naive and rather impolite challenges expressed by the questions “Do you really believe that?” and “Do you really mean that?” Strongly to be recommended also are humor, parody, and satire. Social media is very effective at this.
At the conclusion of his essay, professor Black offers a concise definition of humbug:
He writes: “HUMBUG: deceptive misrepresentation, short of lying, especially by pretentious word or deed, of somebody’s own thoughts, feelings, or attitudes.”
“This definition covers only first-degree humbug. For second-degree humbug, produced by a self-deluded speaker or thinker, the unsatisfactory reference to thoughts and so on would need to be replaced.”
Political humbug has become a prime object of study because political leaders are prone to boast and deceive.
People expect their leaders to be scrupulous in the truth and faithful to the facts. They do not need theatrics or hyperbole. They generally do not approve of the stage management of their public life.
The legitimate achievements of our people do not need to be embellished by the gaudy excesses of PR. Filipinos deserve to be treated with respect and dignity.