Why Does ‘Joshing’ Mean “Kidding Around”?

The word dates back to the mid-19th century, and has taken many forms.
They’re just joshing around.
They’re just joshing around. / Klaus Vedfelt/DigitalVision/Getty Images (women), Jon Mayer/Mental Floss (thought bubble)

Josh is a slang term that you’ve probably used before. “Don’t take me seriously,” you may have said when messing around with a friend or colleague. “I’m just joshing.” The word means “to joke or tease,” and as Candace Osmond writes for Grammarist, “When you’re joshing with someone, you’re engaging in playful, harmless fun.”

But what’s the history of josh? And is there a primordial jokester named Josh who inspired the term?

The First Uses of Josh

The Oxford English Dictionary (OED) separates the verb form of josh into two subtle shades of meaning. The first, “To make fun of, chaff, banter, ridicule,” has been around since at least 1852; the OED’s first citation (which seems to describe someone reminiscent of Popeye) comes from a New York publication called the Lantern: “The squint eyed chap’s been jossin’ ye.” That alternate spelling has turned up from time to time over the years.

The second shade of meaning is defined as “To indulge in banter or ridicule” and appears to be slightly older. The first known use is from 1845 in the St. Louis Reveille: “Look out in future, and if you must Josh, why, give a private one.”

From Verb to Noun and Beyond

When joshing, a josh is produced. The less common noun form of the term—which the OED defines as “A piece of banter or badinage; a good-natured or bantering joke”—has been around since at least the late 19th century. The first known example is from 1878 in Fred H. Hart’s book The Sazerac Lying Club: “Be there anything in this … or ain’t it only one of them ‘joshes’ they get up in the Reveille sometimes?” A near-synonym is used in Stewart Edward White’s 1909 book The Rules of the Game: “Perhaps all this monkey business was one elaborate josh.”

An even rarer form is identified in Green’s Dictionary of Slang: to put the josh on (meaning “to tease”). Owen Wister’s 1902 book The Virginian contains this example: “Trampus put the josh on him.” Putting the josh on someone is to joshing as getting your dance on is to dancing. You might also call someone who engages in joshing a “josher,” a usage that dates back to the 1890s; joshy, meanwhile, was an adjective meaning “amusing.”

There are other, non-joking uses of josh, too: According to Green’s, in the late 19th century, the word was an exclamation used as “a cry of encouragement.” One slang dictionary discussed how it was employed on the New York Stock Exchange: “[I]f a member drops asleep, ‘Josh! josh!’ comes roaring from a dozen lungs, and the broker is awakened by the cry.”

Will the Real Josh Please Stand Up?

So who was Josh? Many discussions of joshing point to Josh Billings (real name Henry Wheeler Shaw), an American humorist who lived from 1818 to 1885. (You might recognize his name from John Steinbeck’s novel Cannery Row.) The only problem is there isn’t any real evidence for this etymology, which is definitely of the folk or popular sort—in other words, it’s a believable, plausible origin that people like to cite despite the lack of hard proof. Folk etymologies are the urban legends of the word world.

Like many words, we don’t know for sure where joshing as a term for kidding around came from. We wish we could tell you there was a king of kidders named Joshua Funnyman who definitively inspired the term, but if we did, well, we’d just be joshing.

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