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.
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.
12 thoughts on “The etymological underworld of “phony””
If you want to see an updated version of that phony ring con, watch the film Zombieland, I think it’s done in that reasonably well.
Interesting! Have a clip you can share?
No luck finding a specific link for the whole scam – here’s how it ended though https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=wWE6mgWm7AA the older girl sets it up and the younger one collects
The con is worked in the TV show Better Call Saul. In that case, it was a gold watch instead of a ring.
The dropped ring trick has been tried twice on me as recently as 2017.
imo phoney comes from “Phonegram” i.e. thats not a real singer it’s a phoney” imo belongs to Reuben Claydon
What about the French word faux?
What about the Phoenicians?