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.

800px-weddingring
Is it real gold or a phony?  Image from Wikimedia Commons.

Phony

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.

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davy crockett in a hot-air balloon

This past week, a few words “blew up” in New England: blizzard, concerning the storm that pounded some parts of the region while only glancing at others, and deflate, due to the allegedly deflated footballs used by the Patriots in their win over the Colts en route to the Super Bowl.  Let’s see what their etymologies have to say.

blizzard
“Blizzard.” Doodle by @andrescalo.

Blizzard

Weather forecasts and etymology have much in common: uncertainty. Perhaps no better word illustrates this commonality than blizzard. Many sources play it safe and note the word’s origin as unknown or obscure. Others have taken more risks, like Eric Partridge, who’ve connected the word to blaze, thinned to blizz, a kind of rainstorm, with “the hiss of rain being likened to that of a blazing fire.” While blaze seems dubious, Eric Partridge is right to highlight the importance of sound to this word, as we will see.

According to The Oxford English Dictionary, the earliest record of the word is in 1829, where it referred to a “violent blow,” much like a punch. Davy Crockett gets a citation in 1834; I recommend you avoid toasting him at dinner. Especially in the American West, the word was also used of gunshots and arguments. The year 1859 marks evidence for blizzard‘s application to snowstorms, while the legendary winter in 1880-1881 in the American Upper Midwest appears to have generalized the word’s usage.

Sonically, blizzard is a very effective word. The initial, phonesthemic bl– evokes the force of blast, blow or bluster, while its z‘s suggest speed. Anatoly Liberman is never one to underestimate such sound symbolism, so he puts up for such an imitative effect of blizz in British rural speech before landing in America. Blizz was then coupled with the productive suffix –ard, as we see in words like drunkard and in my post on bastard.

Deflate

A blizzard may evoke the force of a blow, but deflation, another word much on the New England mind, is etymologically related to it. There’s record of inflation as far back as 1340, but its opposite doesn’t hit the scene until 1891. The word appears not in reference to footballs, but to a Mr. Percival Spencer’s thrilling hot-air ballon at the Naval Exhibition in London.

Hot air indeed: Both inflation and deflation have gas. Inflation originally referred to as much, naming the condition of being distended with air. At root is the Latin flāre (participial form, flātus),to blow.” This root really ballooned in the English language. You don’t want to conflate the soufflé with flatulence. A blast of flavor can cure the blasé. While these sentences don’t really hold together well meaning-wise, the italicized word’s connection to the Proto-Indo-European root *bhle– does. For, via flāre, they are ultimately reconstructed from *bhle, “to blow.”

Now, this Deflategate business may also be a bunch of hot air, but football teams might heed the etymological advice of *bhle-. This root may be a variant of *bhel-, which swelled Indo-European languages with its cognates, including some words important to the sport, making deflated balls are one path to the Super Bowl.

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soccer

Fast Mash

  • According to the OED, soccer originates in 1875 at Oxford University, but borrowed from Rugby School, as university/school slang for “association football,” named for the Football Association that first codified universal rules for football in England
  • The slang is called the Oxford -er, which abridged a word an added –er; other examples include rugger for “rugby,” footer for “football,” ekker for “exercise,” and memugger for “memorial”

With 32 national teams competing on the pitch and millions of fans rooting them on, the World Cup is a truly global event, rallying behind the great, border-breaking banner that is football. Except for that pesky soccer. The term, of course, is primarily used in North American English, though has currency in South Africa and other countries, like the Philippines, where English is spoken. Its place in seems Australia mixed, if I am judge (and don’t let me be judge). But before you cry out “American exceptionalism,” you might want to know how thoroughly English the word is in origin.

Soccer

It’s a well-known story. In the middle of the 19th-century, English schools and universities were playing various forms of football, each with their own “house rules.” By the time young men left their public schools for university, they were all speaking different dialects on the field, to so to speak. To address this, Cambridge developed its own official rules in 1848, and Sheffield later in the 1850s. But these rules were still school-exclusive or regional. So, in 1863, 11 representatives from different schools and clubs met at the Freemason’s Tavern in London to form the Football Association (FA). The FA drafted an official, universal set of rules. Not all clubs signed on, and so the sport we call rugby–named for Rugby School–went its own way. This FA style of football became known as, naturally, “association football” to distinguish it precisely from the other forms, such as rugby football.

But, if you’ve ever walked down the halls of a high school or a university, surely you’ve heard the young adults using their own idiosyncratic way of speaking, their own cant, their own slang. It signals, deepens, and preserves their bond, their identity, their social group. Groups centered around very structured and intensive activities–sports or music are preeminent examples–can feature especially well-developed slang or argot. This, apparently, was particularly true on the campuses of late-1800s England, such as Oxford University, home to something now known as the Oxford “-er.”

According to Eric Partridge in his Dictionary of Slang and Unconventional English, this Oxford “-er”:

…began late in 1875 and came from Rugby School…By this process, the original word is changed and gen[erally] abridged; then ‘-er’ is added. Thus, ‘memorial’ > memugger, the ‘Radcliffe’ Camera > ‘the Radder…Occ[asionally] the word is pluralised, where the origin ends in ‘s’: as in ‘Adders,’ Addison’s Walk, ‘Jaggers,’ Jesus College. This -er has got itself into gen[erally] upper-middle-class s[lang].

So, association gets shortened to its –soc- component, and, with the addition of –er, we get soccer. It was variously pronounced as socca (a common feature for British English, known as non-rhoticity) and spelled as socker. Why soc? Well, otherwise we’d be playing assers or some such. English footballer Charles Wreford Brown is given credit for popularizing the term.

The Oxford Dictionary of English Etymology offers some offer examples of this Oxonian “-er”: along with soccer was footer (“football”) and rugger (“rugby football”); bedder referred to the “bedroom”; ekker, “exercise”; fresher, a “freshman”; and tosher, “an unattached student at Oxford.”

Stateside, the first American football game was played–something like rugby and football, I mean soccer–in 1869, and the term “football” for it was already gaining currency. So, why did soccer stick in the States? I speculate:  For one, there was need for the term, leaving use of “football” for the gridiron descendant of the game. And perhaps class and status take the field, too. The schools where the sport was codified were elite and prestigious, and the slang used therein upper and upper-middle-class, as Partridge notes above. I suppose, then, we must think about the socioeconomic status of the British colonists whose exported the game to the colonies, but we’ll save that for another match.

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the four seasons, part III (fall/autumn)

Fast Mash

  • As a name for the third season of the year, fall is favored by American English and autumn by British English, perhaps due to historic separation by the Atlantic Ocean 
  • Originally “fall of the leaf,” fall is from the Germanic-rooted Old English verb, faellan, likely from the Proto-Indo-European *pol; Latin’s fallere (trip, deceive) is related, giving English words like false, fail, or fallible
  • Autumn comes from the Old French autumpne, from Latin’s autumnus; the Latin may be connected to augere, meaning to increase, as crops at harvest do, or from an unknown Etruscan source
  • By the 16th century, both autumn and fall were displacing the original term for the season, harvest, from Old English’s haerfest, which the OED attests in 902 and is probably from the Proto-Indo-European *kerp, related to Latin’s carpe diem

“That time of year thou mayst in me behold / When yellow leaves, or none, or a few do hang / Upon those boughs which shake against the cold, ” Shakespeare plaintively–or persuasively, depending on your perspective–sonneted on man’s impermanence.

But what do we call that time of year?

A little late? I know. Most of the leaves have fallen by now–or, in SoCal, most of us have pulled out sweaters for those bone-chilling, 50-degree days. But, each year, as we swap out Satan for Santa, aren’t we always asking ourselves: What ever happened to Thanksgiving?

Let’s linger over leftovers and talk about harvest. Or what was once called harvest.

Fall & Autumn

This side of the pond, we call the third season of the year fall, as opposed to the autumn of British English. Why did this come to be? Some attribute the difference to the Atlantic Ocean, for both fall and autumn were displacing English’s original word for the season, harvest, in the 16th century, around the time when the British were settling parts of North America. Perhaps certain linguistic idiosyncrasies, such as a preference for fall, settled well. Check out this short Slate article by Forrest Wickman for more on this difference–including a little of bit of British envy.

As first attested in 1545, fall appeared as “fall of the leaf,” mirroring the origin of spring (“spring of the leaf”), which I picked apart earlier.

Fall as a noun–whether of rain, sword, height, or humanity–comes from fall as a verb, handed down from Old English’s feallan, which could mean “to fall,” “fail,” “decay,” or “die.” Through a Proto-Germanic root of *fallan or *fallanan, etymologists trace the Old English verb back to Proto-Indo-European. The Online Etymology dictionary posits *pol, meaning “to fall.” It has some ancient cognates: Armenian p’ul (downfall); Lithuanian puola/pulti (fall); and Old Prussian aupallai (to find; literally, to fall upon). Shipley, however, glosses the Indo-European root as “to slide,” maybe trying to better articulate the connection historical linguistics entertain to the Latin fallere, variously meaning “to cause to fall,” “trip,” “mislead,” or “deceive.”

You might recognize Latin’s fallere in such derivatives as falsefail, faultfallacy, or fallible

Falling, deceiving, dying–down is bad. The sun goes down, ushering in nightfall? Bipedal man falls down, causing injury? Observations of the damage–or death–due to gravity? Perhaps these etymological connections lend support to Lakoff and Johnson’s The Metaphors We Live By, in which the authors theorize overarching conceptual metaphors (such as up is good, down is bad) that organize our understanding of our experience–and the language we use to express it.

The OED’s earliest attestation of autumnautumpne–comes from a work of translation by Chaucer in 1374. While its form has shed more sounds than a maple sheds leaves in October, English plucks autumn from Romance names for the seasons: the Old French autompne, in turn from Latin’s autumnussometimes documented as auctumnus.

The origin for autumnus is not certain. Some have proposed a connection to augere (to increase; think augment), whose past participle is auctus (think auction). This does make some agricultural sense, with the increase of crops’ yield at harvest during fall. Or autumn.

Shipley argues for an earlier Latin vertumnus, noting the change from warmth to cold in its relationship to vertere (to turn; think convert, divert, verse, and the many others in the root’s big family). To avoid confusion with the Etruscan god of the seasons, Vertumnus, he continues, the Latin-lipped altered the form of the word.  Indeed, the Romans worshipped a god of the seasons, change, and plant life, named Vertumnus, whose altar may have been inspired by the supreme Etruscan deity, Voltumna.

Arcimboldo’s rendering of Holy Roman Emperor Rudolph II as Vertumnus, Roman god of the seasons, change, and plant life. Ca. 1590-91.

Autumn may be Etruscan in origin, but the connection between Voltumna, vertere, and autumn is probably due to folk etymology. In folk etymology, the form or sound of a word, particularly a foreign or obscure word, is changed to accord with ostensibly commonsensical, though mistaken, connections to known words. Click the link for some fun examples of folk etymology.

Harvest

While the relationship between autumn and augment may be unclear, it does point us to harvest, which, in the form of haerfast, named the season between summer and winter as bar back as 902. Harvest may once have encapsulated the entire season, but, with rise of fall and autumn, it narrowed to refer to “the time of gathering of crops,” as the Online Etymology Dictionary puts it, then to the action of gathering, and, yet later, to the product of gathering.

Speaking of “that time of year,” poems about autumn and fall–and English really does have a great repertory of them–may remind us of life’s transience, urging us to “gather ye rosebuds while ye may.” (I know, I think that one’s a bit more vernal, but you get the idea.)

Or, as Horace put it, carpe diem. To “seize the day,” or, better yet, pluck the day while it is ripe. To pick from the tree, heavy with apples. Through the Proto-Germanic *harbitas and some classic Grimm’s law, harvest ultimately is yielded from the Proto-Indo-European *kerp, meaning “gather,” “pluck,” or “harvest.” Latin has carpere, which could also mean “to cut” or “divide.” Greek has καρπός, or the product of plucking, “fruit.” And speaking of cutting, Sanskrit has krpana for sword and krpani for “shears”

So often, we talk about taking a step back during the holiday season to see the big picture of all the sales and events, all the gatherings and obligations, all the recipes and rituals. (I could make an argument that Black Friday represents a new form of crop gathering and ritualistic celebration of bounty, but I’ll stick to etymology.)

I think etymology helps us to do this stepping back. The origin of words like fall and harvest have an immediacy, a salience, a simplicity, or a literalness that all of our myriad, modern goings-on seem to cloud up.

Leaves fall.mCrops ripen. Crops are picked. Life. Death. Nourishment. Change.

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