Fake news has been very much in the real news this week. Facebook in particular has been in the hot seat for the proliferation of false stories and misinformation over the 2016 presidential campaign. Many fear fake news on the internet and social media not only influenced the election but is also further dividing the American people and eroding the core principles of democracy.
As we get the facts on fake news, let’s have a look at what the word fake might be hiding in its etymology.
The Oxford English Dictionary (OED) first attests the adjective fake, meaning “spurious” or “counterfeit,” in a 1775 letter from William Howe, who rose to Commander-in-Chief of the British Army during the American Revolution. He wrote: “So many artifices have been practiced upon Strangers under the appearance of Friendship, fake Pilots &c., that those coming out with Stores…cannot be put too much on their guard.”
By 1819, fake was a verb used by thieves as slang for “doing (something) for the purpose of deception.” The OED provides a passage from James Hardy Vaux, an English convict who served time in Australian penal colonies and authored A New Vocabulary of the Flash Language, with “flash language” referring to the secret cant criminals used to evade and confuse the authorities. It’s worth quoting Vaux’s entry for fake at length. Fake is:
a word so variously used, that I can only illustrate it by a few examples. To fake any person or place, may signify to rob them; to fake a person, may also imply to shoot, wound, or cut; to fake a man out and out, is to kill him; a man who inflicts wounds upon, or otherwise disfigures, himself, for any sinister purpose, is said to have faked himself; if a man’s shoe happens to pinch, or gall his foot, from its being overtight, he will complain that his shoe fakes his foot sadly; it also describes the doing of any act, or the fabricating any thing, as, to fake your slangs, is to cut your irons in order to escape from custody;to fake your pin, is to create a sore leg, or to cut it, as if accidentally, with an axe, etc., in hopes to obtain a discharge from the army or navy, to get into the doctor’s list, etc.; to fake a screeve, is to write a letter, or other paper; to fake a screw, is to shape out a skeleton or false key, for the purpose of screwing a particular place; to fake a cly, is to pick a pocket; etc., etc., etc.
To fake it emerges in the 1920s as jazz slang for “improvise.” To fake, or “pretend,” is by the 1940s. A fake, meanwhile, appears by the 1820s, a faker by the 1840s. Sports saw its feinting fake by the 1930-40s. And Charles Dickens’s pickpocketing Fagin in Oliver Twist (1838) indeed suggests feague and fake.
The origin of fake, in spite of these incredible citations, is obscure. Many etymologists look to the German fegen (or Dutch vegen), which meant “to sweep,” “clean,” or “polish,” a verb much evidenced as slang terms for “plundering” or “tormenting.” This fegen may have yielded the late 16th-century English word feague, “to beat” or “whip,” which evolved into fake, possibly by means of feak, “to twitch” or “jerk.” The connecting sense between German’s fegen and English’s fake is of sprucing something up to make it look more valuable than it actually is.
The fegen explanation is compelling but problematic, as the Barnhart Dictionary of Etymology observes. For the earliest evidence of fake, for “false,” comes from Howe, who was an upper-class man of the military and government, while Vaux was a lower-class, thrice-convicted thief (though impressive man of letters, as his dictionary is considered the first written Australia). Slang typically emerges from the streets, so to speak, and crosses over into mainstream, standard dialect, not the other way around. Barnhart suggests that Howe’s fake and Vaux’s fake may well be different words, both with unknown origins.
As any etymologist worth their salt will tell you, it’s better to leave the origin of a word truly unknown than to traffic in phonies, no matter how much you might want to share them on Facebook.