The Grammarphobia Blog

A phony etymology

Q: A Francophile friend has suggested that “phony” is somehow related to “faux.” True or false?

A: False. “Phony” and “faux” are not related. However, “false” and “faux” come from the same Latin source.

The Oxford English Dictionary says “phony” (it uses the British spelling “phoney”) is “probably a variant of fawney,” an old slang term for a finger ring. The OED says “fawney” comes from fáine, Irish for ring.

How, you’re probably wondering, could the Irish word for a ring be the ultimate source of “phony”?

The missing link here is an old confidence game known by such terms as “fawney dropping,” “going on the fawney,” or the “fawney rig.” (A “rig” was a trick or swindle.)

In the second edition of A Classical Dictionary of the Vulgar Tongue (1788), Francis Grose describes the scam this way:

“Fawney Rig. A common fraud, thus practiced: A fellow drops a brass ring, double gilt, which he picks up before the party meant to be cheated, and to whom he disposes of it for less than its supposed, and ten times more than its real, value.”

The earliest citation in the OED for the confidence game is from A View of Society and Manners in High and Low Life (1781), by George Parker: “The Fawney rig.”

And here’s another example from Parker’s book: “There is a large shop in London where these kind of rings are sold, for the purpose of going on the Fawney.”

The word “phony” showed up in the US in the late 19th century as an adjective meaning false: “Many of the ‘phony’ bookmakers in the ring had not enough play to keep them alive” (from the Chicago Tribune, June 29, 1893).

The noun, meaning a false person or thing, showed up in the early 20th century. The first OED citation is from Six Ex-Tank Tales, a 1902 collection of sketches by Clarence Louis Cullen that originally appeared in the New York Sun:

“If youse tinks f’r a minnit dat youse is goin’ t’ git away wit’ a phony like dat wit’ me youse is got hay in y’r hemp, dat’s wot.” (The ex-tank, or ex-tankard, tales are supposedly told during “deliberations of the Harlem Club of Former Alcoholic Degenerates.”)

As for “false” and “faux,” both terms are derived from falsus, classical Latin for false. The term was originally fals in both Old English and Old French, but the French version was faux when English borrowed it in the 17th century as a synonym for “false.”

In this early OED example, from a late 10th-century glossary compiled by the Benedictine abbot Ælfric of Eynsham, “false” modifies “penny” in Old English: “fals pening.” In Anglo-Saxon times, a “penny” was a foreign coin.

The use of “false” was relatively rare in Old English, but expanded in Middle English after the Norman Conquest in the 11th century, influenced by Old French and Anglo-Norman.

The dictionary’s first example for “faux” used in English to mean false is from The Atheist (1684), a play by the English dramatist Thomas Otway: “Let me never see day again, if yonder be not coming towards us the very Rascal I told thee of this Morning, our faux Atheist.”

“Faux” was italicized in that citation, indicating that it was still considered foreign. Charlotte Brontë apparently felt the same way when she put it in quotation marks a century and a half later:

“You have a ‘faux air’ of Nebuchadnezzar in the fields about you, that is certain” (from Jane Eyre, 1847).

It wasn’t until the late 20th century, according to OED citations, that “faux” was being used in plain type: “His creative talent is still obscured by his own faux-cynical statements” (from the Times Literary Supplement, July 20, 1984).

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