What is the “hench” in “henchman”?

The 2016 presidential campaign yet again proves to be quite the horserace, if etymology has its say.

After an anti-Trump super PAC made use of a nude photo of Trump’s wife, Melania, in a political ad during last week’s Utah caucuses, Donald Trump threatened he would “spill the beans” on fellow Republican candidate Ted Cruz’s wife. As lexicographer Ben Zimmer recently explained, the expression spill the beans actually originates in U.S. horse-racing.

Then, the pro-Trump National Enquirer accused Cruz of extramarital affairs. Cruz responded by pinning the “garbage” allegations on “Donald Trump and his henchmen.”

Today, as we see Cruz imply, a henchman – or henchperson, as language writer Stan Carey has observeddoes his boss’s dirty work. But historically, a henchman may have gotten their hands dirty with a very different kind of business. See, the best we can tell, the hench in henchman is all about horses.

Should we call them “henches”?  Image from www.freeimages.com/photographer/speluzzi-33102.

From groom to goon 

The Oxford English Dictionary (OED) first cites henchman in 1360, when, taking the Medieval Latin form of hengestmannus, the word appeared in official financial records during Edward III’s reign. Then, a henchman named a kind of “squire” or “page” who attended on a royal or noble figure on foot – or, more important to the origin of the word, horseback – during a procession. (The two henchmen noted in the OED’s earliest accounts were apparently named “Mustard” and “Garlic.”)

Henchman, then, probably began an ordinary “groom” but later rose in rank, a social mobility that the words constable, marshal, and groom itself also enjoyed.

Henchman appears to join man to hengest, an Old English word that named a “horse,” “stallion,” or “gelding.” For the compound, philologist Walter Skeat identifies relatives in the Icelandic hestvörðr (“horse-ward) and Swedish hingstridare (“horse-rider”). Hengest  itself has widespread Germanic cognates, which some Indo-European scholars reconstruct in the Proto-Germanic *hangistaz, “best at springing,” rooted in a Proto-Indo-European base for “to spring.”

But right after 1200, hengest flees the written record except as an element in various proper names associated with Hengist, the alleged war-name of the Jutish conqueror of Kent in the 5th century. And, while Skeat cites Nordic kin, the OED notes no compound counterpart for henchman in other Germanic languages.

The origin of henchman does some raise questions, even if we have a good hunch about it.

In the late 14th-century, Henry IV, then the Earl of Derby, added henchmen (henksman and hensman in the historic documentation) to his retinue on an important expedition. English royalty thereafter variously enlisted henchmen for royal service until Queen Elizabeth abolished them in 1565. Henchman itself flees English after the 1650s until Sir Walter Scott (re)popularized the word.

Editing Edmund Burt’s 1754 Letters in the North of Scotland, Scott encountered hanchman, which Burt describes as a personal attendant “at the Haunch” of a Highland chief, a kind of  gillie. At that time, Scottish pronounced hanchman something like henchman, which spelling Scott used when he employed the word in his Lady of the Lake for a “follower.”

So, as the OED wonders, did Burt just coin hanchman or actually revive the obsolete term? As philologist Ernest Weekly offers, “There may be no real connection to the [Modern English] word.”

After Scott, henchman spread into politics. The OED cites it as a “stout political supporter” by 1839, noting it started showing the “unscrupulous” (if not outright “nefarious”) character Ted Cruz conveyed in American English by the end of the 19th century.

Does hench the henchman ultimately come from the, er, horse‘s mouth? Possibly, but it’s not crystal clear. Just like the outcome of the presidential race: Will all these spilled beans and henchmen open up a lane for another political term rooted in horse-racing, the dark horse candidate? John Kasich seems to be betting on it.

For more on horse-y etymologies, see my posts on horse and derby.

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Pulling “rabbit” out of the etymological hat

Christianity, in many ways, originates with Easter: Jesus Christ’s resurrection from the dead is a cornerstone of the faith. The Easter Bunny, most maintain, originates in German folklore involving a rabbit that delivered colored eggs to good little girls and boys. And the holiday’s bunnies, chicks, and eggs, of course, have longed served as symbols of fertility, rebirth, and new life. But what about the word rabbit?

Down the rabbit hole

Some of my favorite etymologies concern those simple, everyday words whose origins we simply don’t know. Over at Oxford Dictionaries, I recently wrote about a number of them, including dog. Yes, dog; we just don’t know what, er, etymological tree it’s barking up. We can add to this list rabbit, another commonplace word for a commonplace animal whose origins are obscure.

Here’s the problem with rabbit: there is apparently no native Celtic or Germanic word for this animal, as the critter was not native to northern Europe. These early cultures had a word for hare, no doubt, but not the rabbit. Now, I can’t quite tell you the difference between the rabbit and the hare, but the lexicon of our Indo-European ancestors certainly registered them.

A rabbit, wondering that’s the etymology of its name it hears lurking in the brush. Image from http://www.freeimages.com/photographer/jeffreyvb-33973.

We have record of rabbit by the late 14th century. Origins have been proposed like, well, rabbits. But, in his excellent An Analytic Dictionary of English Etymology, professor and philologist Anatoly Liberman easily dispatches with many of the early ones, including: the Hebrew for “copulate,” the same Latin root that yields rabies, the Greek for “creeper,” and even the name Robert.

But the picture gets more complicated when we consider robett, the word for rabbit in Walloon, a Romance language spoken in parts of Belgium and France (and, for a time, in Wisconsin). This cognate, though now considered borrowed from Flemish, has led many etymologists to seek a Romance root for rabbit, including in the French râble (“back and loin of the rabbit”) and the Spanish rabo (“tail”). Liberman traps these hypotheses, as tempting as they may look.

Instead, Liberman looks to a structure used in Germanic animal names, including German’s Robbe (“seal”) and the Icelandic robbi (“sheep, ram”): r + vowel + b. He also roots robin, whose name has been of equally problematic origin, in this structure. Onto this base was added a French suffix along the lines of -et or –ot.

As Liberman nicely sums it up: “Rabbit is a Germanic noun with a French suffix.”

But what does r-b mean?  Speakers of ancient Germanic languages apparently – and arbitrarily – had  this sound complex available as vehicle for naming animals of all sizes and stripes. And the French -et  or -ot signifies diminutives. So, a rabbit, if Liberman is correct, is some sort of little animal-type thingy.

Liberman puts rabbit into the bigger picture for us: “Rabbits were well known in the British Isles by the year 1200, but the word rabbit surfaced two centuries later. Most likely, speakers of English coined many words for the new animal. They are all lost, while rabbit has survived. The sound complex r-b in the name of the rabbit has no parallels outside Germanic.”

The hare is larger and has longer ears than the rabbit does, among other differences. The Easter Bunny can be frightening enough. But the Easter Hare? Eesh. Image from Wikimedia Commons.

In the rabbit warren 

English does have other words in its leporine lexicon, though. Coney was an earlier name for “rabbit,” attested by the early 13th century though largely displaced by the 19th century; its historic pronunciation, rhyming with honey, yielded some coarse slang. Coney ultimately derives from the French conil, which, in turn, comes from the Latin cunīculus.

But, like English’s own rabbit, cunīculus was not a native term for the Romans. Historians, even ancient historians, note that Spaniards introduced rabbits to the Romans. In Spanish, rabbit is conejo, though this develops from the Latin; etymologists suggest an ultimately Iberian origin for the word.

Some claim, though it’s disputed, the very name Spain means “land of rabbits,” from a Phoenician root for the “hyrax,” cognate, from what I gather, to Hebrew’s šāpān. The King James Bible uses coney, in fact, to translate the name for this creature that looks like a rodent but is not related.


The rock hyrax, actually related to elephants, not rabbits. Image from http://www.freeimages.com/photographer/revi82-62142.

Bunny hops onto the scene last. The OED cites it as a “pet name for a rabbit” by 1606, from bun. Documented a few decades earlier, bun originally named a “squirrel” or a “rabbit,” leading some to a Scottish word referring to “tail.” But the ultimate origin is unknown – which, for an etymology nerd like me, is like candy in my Easter basket. Just no Peeps, please.

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Why are efforts described as “last-ditch”?

Recently, I’ve come across a number of articles describing the Republican establishment’s “last-ditch efforts” to stop their party’s nomination of Donald Trump for the U.S. presidency:

last-ditch effort google search.png
Screen capture by me, March 22, 2016

But why do we call these efforts “last-ditch”?

In the etymological trenches

In 1706, English writer Daniel Defoe published Jure Divino, a verse satire in which he extolled William I, the Prince of Orange, famed for leading Dutch rebels against a tyrannical Spain in the 16th century. In a footnote, Defoe shares an anecdote told of William:

Of this [the Prince of Orange] gave an unparallel’d Instance, when being reduc’d to great Difficulties, in the fame War, and press’d by the French, in the Bowels of his native Country, on one Hand, and the English, with their Navy, on the other; and the English Ambassadors offer’d him, in the Names of the Kings of England and France, to take the whole Country, and then restoring it to him, form it into a Monarchy, and make him King of it: He rejected it with the utmost Indignation; and when One of them ask’d him what Remedy he could think of for the Ruin of his Affairs, answer’d, He knew One effectual Remedy, viz. to lie in the last Ditch; intimating, that he would dispute every Inch of Ground with the Enemy, and at last would die defending the Liberties of his Country.

For the source of the anecdote, I should note, Defoe cites Sir William Temple’s Memoirs, referring to an important English diplomat of the day whose writings Jonathan Swift, it happens, published.

So, from the dry moats dug around castles to the trenches of the First World War, warfare was long fought in the trenches – or ditches . The last ditch, then, was quite literally the “last line of defence” against an enemy’s siege, as the Oxford English Dictionary glosses it.

(Perhaps the military origins of last ditch were obvious to you. I, for one, never made the made connection. )

And, if the Prince of Orange is indeed the originator of last ditch, he would have so uttered it in Early Modern Dutch, making the English expression, of course, a translation. I’m not quite sure how the Prince of Orange would have said it in Early Modern Dutch: Perhaps something, and do forgive me, my Dutch-speaking readers, along the lines of laatse greppel?

Some last-ditchery of last-ditch

The last ditch expression proved to be a useful one, frequently appearing in the phrase to die in the last ditch in its early, political history. Thomas Jefferson even employed it in his own autobiographical writings when he described a “government…driven to the last ditch by the universal call for liberty.”

Now, the Oxford English Dictionary cites the adjectival form, usually hyphenated, for a resistance “maintained to the end” by 1888. The more metaphorical last-minute attempts to “avert disaster,” which prevails in today’s parlance, appears by 1930, according to the dictionary. Last-ditch effort appears at least by 1944; the OED cites it in Billboard, as in the pop music charts, then published in Cincinnati, OH.

Ditch itself is an old word, rooted in the Old English díc, a “trench” or “moat,” which also yields dike and derives from a Germanic base.

The OED also records the the wonderful forms last-ditchery (“fighting to the last ditch”; 1889) and the earlier last-ditcher (“one who fights to the last ditch”; 1862) – which might lend a little and much-needed whimsy to the tense and heated political discourse these days.

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Whales, antelopes, monsters, & pigs: a deep dive into the many names for the orca

This week, Sea World announced that it’s ending its controversial captive orca breeding programOrca, killer whale, blackfish: this inspiring cetacean has known many names in English. Let’s take a deep dive into their origins.


Popularly, the orca goes by the “killer whale,” which has been in use, often just as “killer” early on, since the 1720s. In spite of the ferocity that inspired the animal’s name, many, knowing the sea mammal as a highly intelligent, social, and matrilineal creature, have objected to the murderous moniker of killer whale, working to popularize its scientific name, orca, instead.

For marine biologists, the orca is the Orcinus orca, previously Delphinus orca or Orca gladiator, again suggesting the bellicose behaviors the creature’s names have historically highlighted. For this scientific usage of orca, we can thank the Father of Taxonomy, Carl Linnaeus, who looked to Latin for his nomenclature system in the 18th century. (We can also thank Linnaeus for lemur and larva, whose spooky roots I explored this past Halloween.) In general, however, orca has been swimming English waters since at least the 1650s.

In Latin, orca refers to a “kind of whale.” My sources aren’t much more specific on what kind of whale, exactly, but, in the record, orca has named a variety of fierce and formidable cetaceans. Perhaps orca displayed a similar generality in Latin.

The Oxford English Dictionary (OED) and philologist Ernest Klein take Latin’s orca back to the Greek ὄρυξ (oryx). As far as I can tell, this oryx named a “pickax” as well as a kind of North African “antelope,”  related to a verb for “to dig up.” English, too, has oryx, so naming a genus of antelopes whose horns are indeed very long, straight, and pickax-like.

While the OED doesn’t further elaborate on the semantics of Greek’s oryx, Klein comments that this oryx also denoted a kind of whale. Perhaps the orca’s dorsal fin was seen to to cut through the surface of the water like an pickax? Both sources, moreover, observe that Latin’s “whale” orca was influenced by another orca in the language, this one a kind of “vat” or “vessel.”

Does the orca’s dorsal fin resemble a pickax? Image from freeimages.com/photo/killer-whale-1466891.

Latin’s orca inspired Italian’s orca and French’s orque, which variously named large, whale-like, and often fabulous sea monsters. These three together, the OED comments, influenced English’s orc, an earlier name for orca. The dictionary dates it to the 16th-century, perhaps as early as the 1520s.

English has other orcs, however, though bearing no etymological relation to the whale. As a name for the vicious, ogre-like monsters, the English orc derives from the Italian orco, a “man-eating giant,” from the Latin Orcus, one of the language’s name for “Hell” or its gods. Old English also had an orc; this one meant “demon,” which in part inspired Tolkien when he popularized these creatures in his fantasies. The Old English orc appears to be unrelated to the Latin, though they resonate devilishly well. Our word ogre may also be derived from Latin’s Orcus.

There is still yet an earlier name for this largest of the dolphins and its kin: the grampus, which roams similar waters, date-wise, to orc. As is, grampus looks like a Latin word. It is, but we’ll have to keep swimming to find it. Through quite the series of sound changes in English and French before it, grampus ultimately derives from the Medieval Latin craspicis, literally a “great fish” or “fat fish,” as the OED glosses it; craspicis joins crassus, “thick” and piscis, “fat.”

Speaking of piscis, sound changes, and dolphins, the  origin of English porpoise can be hard to see clearly through the choppy, murky water of language evolution. For “dolphin,” later Latin had porcopiscis, “pig fish,” joining that same piscis with porcus, “pig.” The earlier word in English, though, was mereswine, or “sea pig.” Oh, what wondrous creatures there are in the ocean of language!

But lest I forget, there is one other name for the orca that I can’t neglect: blackfish, inspired, obviously, by the animal’s appearance. Hence, Blackfish, the powerful exposé of Sea World’s captive orcas, which, in no small part, helped inspire the pressure on Sea World to end its captive breeding program.

The orca may have many names, but I think we can all agree to call Sea World’s decision a very good one.

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Four-leaf etymologies: slew

A good etymology is like finding a four-leaf clover. So often, we stroll through words as if through a field of common trefoil. But sometimes, for reasons I don’t think any of us wholly understand, we chance upon something special hidden in the otherwise ordinary green.

This happened to me for the word slew.

I think my readers are mostly familiar with my writing process here. I listen out for words trending in the ether and see what their etymologies can illuminate about them. Often, they are words in the news. Other times, they follow the rhythm of the calendar – like today, St. Patrick’s Day.

The holiday is a natural occasion to write about some words of Irish origin. Words like leprechaun and shamrock first jump out, of course, but I feel like these words are like hunting for a four-leaf clover. We just never find one when our search is deliberate.

So, I continue through the clover field and stumble upon a word like phony, whose surprisingly Irish etymology I recently plucked. Or boycott, which has Irish roots, too, though in a different manner, as I also discussed not long ago. There are many others: slogan and galore are particularly excellent specimens.

But this time, slew, as in a whole slew of clovers, was my lucky find.


Slew is so plain and everyday a word to be invisible, taken-for-granted. At first blush, it’s just any old shamrock. But, on closer look, it’s really lovely.

The Oxford English Dictionary (OED) dates this unassuming word back to 1839, citing a bit of dialogue in Daniel Thompson’s Green Mountain Boys: “‘And what is still more, he has cut out a road, and drawn up a whole slew of cannon clean to the top of Mount Defiance, which he will have all mounted, and ready to pour hell and thunder down on ‘em in the fort before they dream of it.’”

Slew is a surprisingly recent addition to English, if the OED’s record is any measure. The word derives from the Irish sluagh, which I find in modern Irish as slua, referring to a large group of people: a “crowd” or “multitude.” In Old Irish, the word was slúag or slóg, “army” or “host.” We easily can see how a group of soldiers was extended to a general group of people.

The American Heritage Dictionary of Indo-European Roots reconstructs a Proto-Indo-European ancestor for slew: *sloug-, a Celtic and Balto-Slavic root for “help” or “service.”

I imagine a young clansman, perhaps ambling along a clover-covered hillside, when an enemy tribe comes across him. Perhaps he calls out for help, and group of his fellow clansmen come to his aid – much like bellowing a sluagh-ghairm, literally a “war-cry” in Irish. Do you recognize that sluagh? It’s the very same sluagh that gives us slew, appearing in this sluagh-ghairm which English eventually rendered as slogan. Irish and Scottish clans once cried out these sluagh-ghairm as calls to battle.

The OED notes slew starts out in colloquial U.S. English. The character speaking in Thompson’s passage cited above indeed has something a colloquial register, as suggested by “‘em” – and perhaps by the very expression “whole slew.” English at some point borrowed the word from the Irish during the 19th century. And while English has a whole slew of words to express the concept of slew, this Irish borrowing found its special, little plot and sprouted – with four leaves in my lexical opinion – in the great clover field of words in the English language.

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Tico talk

I don’t usually have a taste for kitschy souvenirs, but in Costa Rica, whose beautiful lands my wife and I recently had the pleasure to visit, I couldn’t resist.

See, Costa Ricans – or Ticos, their more colloquial demonym – really know how to market to a very specific segment: tourists obsessed with etymology. Surely, I’m not alone.

My wife and I spent our last two nights in Costa Rica’s bustling capital, San José. We spent some time wandering its Mercado Central, almost as dense and labyrinthine as the lush and misty cloud forests we hiked just days before. Like the Grand Bazaar we wandered in Istanbul or the night markets in Bangkok, the Mercado Central vends its herbs, meats, household goods, clothing, Marian iconography, and casados to locals – and t-shirts, stuffed animals, keychains, jewelry, and knickknack carretas to tourists.

I tried to stay focused on my destination, Café Central, whose coffee was second only to the friendliness of its matronly baristas, but I was waylaid by a souvenir t-shirt:

It’s just not every day a souvenir boasts demonymy and etymology:

Tico t

As mentioned, Costa Ricans are popularly known as Ticos or Ticas. Spanish is lush with diminutive suffixes, such as –ita/-ito (e.g., casa > casita, perrocerrito). But Costa Ricans, apparently, have historically been fond of a different diminutive: –ico/-ica or –tico/-tica, depending on the word. So fond, in fact, that visitors to the country noted it in their speech and thusly nicknamed them. The OED records Tico as chiefly US slang and first attests in 1905. Ticos, as far as I can tell, at some point claimed it as their own.

While I didn’t notice its usage in Tico talk, I did see it employed in a variety of brand names: Teletica, Costa Rica’s first TV company, uses it, for instance. The more formal demonym, which I spotted on official buildings as we drove through the country, is costarricense.

After a memorable cup of coffee at Café Central, we decided to continue winding our away around San José. I opted out of a Tico t; I’d rather spend my remaining colónes on local food, alcohol, and coffee, as well as a few books in Spanish (Hamlet and Malkiel’s Etymology) and a few notebooks.

But diminutives, we should remember, don’t just express smallness; they can also communicate affection.

On our way back to our hotel, my wife had still had a few items she wanted to find for some family members. So, back at the Mercado Central, I enjoyed a coffee at a soda while she perused a few stalls. At one point, she asked me which color of a Tico t-shirt I thought her “nephew” would prefer. I pointed to the blue one.

Like I said, I’m not usually one for kitschy souvenirs, but, in no small part to the lovely culture and climes of Costa Rica, I’ll gladly wear this camiseta. Or should I say camisetica?

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Where did the @ symbol come from?

Computer programmer Ray Tomlinson died this week at the age of 74.  He definitely left his mark.

In 1971, Tomlinson invented email. As if that isn’t enough, he also first used @ – the at sign – to separate the username from the domain in the first electronic mail, now the standard symbol around the world.

The at sign, also known as the commercial at, has many other colorful names across the globe, including words for monkey, snail, and puppy in a number of languages.

Thanks to Tomlinson, @ now prevails in digital correspondence, but the symbol previously served commerce: accountants once used @ to abbreviate “at a rate of.” For instance, 10 pencils @ $1: 10 pencils at a rate of $1, or $10.

Tomlinson invented email as a way to send messages from one computer to another, a problem the US government recruited him to solve. To do so, the user and the host names needed some sort of punctuation mark to separate them. Tomlinson has since explained he chose @ because not only was it available, as it was not widely used, but also because it handily communicated a sense of location.

Hicks at Utah, or HICKS@UTAH, is an early example of @’s usage, as the Oxford English Dictionary (OED) records. The OED first dates the email @ to 1972, while the commercial @ is cited yet earlier in 1969.

But as a symbol, @ is much older.

The OED notes the “earliest evidence so far found for the symbol is in 16th-cent. European mercantile records.” The dictionary points to its usage as an Italian unit of measurement, called the anfora, as well as a Spanish and Portuguese one, the arroba.

Anfora, or amphora in English, measured about 9 gallons for the Greeks, apparently, and 6 gallons, 7 pints for the Romans, the OED explains. The two-handled vessel, the amphora, is the inspiration for the name and the unit of measurement. As used in this sense, amphora is attested in English by 1607. The Spanish arroba actually derives from Arabic – al-rub, a weight one “quarter” of a Spanish quintal – and thus typically measured about 25 Spanish pounds. Arroba, the OED tells us, is recored by 1598.

Like so many unread emails, these amphorae piled up in Pula, Croatia. Image from freeimages.com/Michalina Piotrowksi

Several theories attempt to explain @’s distinctive spiral. Most converge on medieval manuscript shorthand for high-frequency words, like at, a significant efficiency when we consider the labor and expense required to produce and copy manuscripts. Some say @ wraps the e in each around the a in at; others, the curve abbreviates the t in at’s a. Yet others look to Latin’s ad (“to” or “at), with the symbol’s loop preserving an earlier way of writing lowercase d. In French, this at would be à, so @ saves writers from lifting their pens due to the accent mark, as it apparently can today.

If @ is first evidenced in medieval manuscripts, I, for one, would look to the Romance languages for the origin of this symbol and abbreviation.

Wherever @ comes from, one thing’s for sure: thanks to his technological (and typographical) genius, Tomlinson has made sure this once obscure and obsolescent symbol won’t be going anywhere anytime soon.

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The etymological underworld of “phony”

A few weeks back, Donald Trump caused a stir over his use of a certain p word.

That’s a topic we generally treat on Strong Language, where I recently published a piece dealing with some not unrelated matters in Shakespeare’s Antony and Cleopatra. Speaking of Shakespeare, be sure to swing by Shakespeare Confidential if you haven’t had a chance to recently. I’m six plays – and as many posts and more – into my yearlong effort to read the Bard’s complete works.

Now, more recently, Mitt Romney made his own headlines when he tried to take Trump to task with a very different p word: phony.

This epithet has something of an old-fashioned ring to it, no? The etymology of the word may quite literally bear this “ring” out, in a manner of speaking.

Is it real gold or a phony?  Image from Wikimedia Commons.


On the origin of phony, and its earlier variant, phoney, lexicographer Eric Partridge is quite helpful. Phoney, Partridge observes:

meaning ‘counterfeit, spurious, pretended,’ was little known, outside of North America, before American journalists, late in 1939, began to speak of the ‘the phoney war’.

This Phoney War marked a period of relative inaction on the Western Front after the Allies declared war on Nazi Germany at the start of World War II.

Partridge goes on to dispute some phony etymologies of the word:

The word does not come from ‘funny business’, nor from telephone, nor yet from one Forney, an American jeweller specializing in imitation ware, but, via American phoney man, a peddler of imitation jewellery.

The Oxford English Dictionary (OED) agrees phony originates in colloquial American English, but first cites it in an 1893 reference to horse-racing slang , “‘phony’ bookmakers,” quoting The Chicago Tribune. The OED glosses them as “unofficial bookmakers issuing betting slips on which they do not intend to pay out.” From frontrunner to dark horse, US politics just can’t seem to unsaddle its many associations with horse-racing.

Back to Partridge. His entry on phoney continues, noting phoney man is:

from its original, the English fawney man, itself an adaption of the British fawney cove, one who practises ‘the fawney rig’ or ring-dropping trick, involving a gilt ring passed off as gold and first described by George Parker in A View of Society, 1781.

Cove is thieves’ cant for “fellow” or “chap,” the OED helps out. The dictionary also records Parker as the earliest evidence of this fawney rig. For a description of this con, the OED lets the 1823 edition of the famed Grose’s Classical Dictionary of the Vulgar Tongue speak for itself:

Fawney rig, a common fraud thus practised:—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.

Imagine you’re strolling down the street when, suddenly, a nearby man drops a ring. He picks it up and says, “Hey, it’s a gold ring. It’s worth a lot, but I’ll tell you what. I’ll give it to you for half.” You, apparently, can’t turn down such a good deal for a luxury item and shell out your own gold for the fake gold. I can see someone peddling some knockoff jewelry when a customer’s in the market for it, but I’m having a hard time understanding the whole let’s-drop-a-ring-and-accost-this-random-stranger set-up to this scam.

The Dictionary of Crime provides some additional information about this confidence game:

The confidence man would drop a Lady’s purse containing a cheap ring and wait for someone to spot it. He would then pretend to notice at the same time and claim half the loot for sharing in the discovery. The confidence man or an accomplice would appraise the ring at three or four times its real value, and offer the dupe his half of the find for about double its actual value.

OK, the purse vehicle makes it a little more believable, and I’m sure there were many variations on the swindle. Still, the crime dictionary, observes:

Although the ruse sounds implausible today, one London jewelry shop specializing in bogus gold rings did substantial business as a fawney factory.

OK, returning to Partridge, who concludes:

The key-word is the British underworld fawney, a  finger-ring, a word brought to England by Irish confidence tricksters and deriving from the synonymous Irish fáinne. It was probably the Irish who introduced the word into the United States.

Indeed Irish for “ring,” fáinne, some argue, is from an Indo-European root that also put anus on Latin’s finger (and yes, that place we associated with pulling fingers). Today, someone wearing the ring-shaped Fáinne pin is displaying they’re not being phony about the Irish language – unless it’s a phony Fáinne.

While many etymologists suspect this origin of phoney is genuine, we still not absolutely certain of its truth. If it is true, the spelling of phoney, using ph– for f-, must be influenced by spelling of the Greek-based phone, I imagine. My speculation fits the historical timeline: phone, short for telephone, is recorded by 1880, while phone, as a speech sound in linguistic circles, is documented a little earlier.

And phony‘s passage from Irish to British and American English also generally matches with the Irish diaspora – though I, as a person of Irish descent who is soon moving to Dublin, must take umbrage at the aspersions phony’s origins casts on the Irish.

Phony, referring to a fraud, may well originate in a fraud. From his hotel in Vegas to his many wins on the campaign trail, Trump, no doubt, likes the gold. But trying to take him down with brass may not work, if his recent reference to yet another p word is any measure.

m ∫ r ∫