“Suffrage”: Cutting through all the noise

Are you tired of all the campaign noise? Are you worried America is splitting into two? Are you saying prayers? Or are you proudly casting your ballot – for a woman who, not 100 years ago, couldn’t have done so herself ? On this US Election Day, the etymology of suffrage, that right to vote so sacrosanct in democracy, wraps all of these feelings into one.

Thoughts and prayers…and votes

The earliest meaning of suffrage in English was “prayers.” These prayers, as the Oxford English Dictionary (OED) attests them in the 14th century, were intercessory, or said on behalf on another, especially for the souls of the dead. An earlier variant, suffragies, also referred to such prayers in Middle English.

It’s over the course of the 16th century that suffrage moves towards various senses related to voting. The OED records suffrage as “a vote” cast in favor of some official proposition or candidate by 1535. By 1665, suffrage referred to general “voting” as such. 

But it’s the United States Constitution, which entered into force 1789, where we first find the use of suffrage in its modern sense: “the right to vote.” Article V stipulates that “no State, without its Consent, shall be deprived of its equal Suffrage in the Senate.”

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A screen capture of Article V of the US Constitution, courtesy of the US National Archives. Does it seem the Founding Fathers needed a little help with their apostrophe rules?

Expanding suffrage

By 1822 we have a universal suffragist, who worked to extend franchise. In the middle of the 19th century, suffragists especially referred to those fighting for the right of black men to vote. In the last quarter of the 19th century, the focus of suffragist was on women’s suffrage.

Women’s suffrage as such is first recorded in the name of a Rhode Island organization, the Young Women’s Suffrage Association, listed in James Webster’s 1842 People’s Democratic Guide. As the guide explained its mission:

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A screen capture of The People’s Democratic Guide, courtesy of the Internet Archive

The Young Women’s Suffrage Association, like the Ladies Free Suffrage Association of Rhode Island, whose entry is immediately preceding in the guide, issued a powerful call:

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A screen capture of The People’s Democratic Guide, courtesy of the Internet Archive

Suffragette, a women fighting for her right to vote, appears by 1906. Early on, though, this title was actually associated with violence and militancy

The sound and the fury? 

So, how did suffrage evolve from “prayers” to “the right vote”? It seems that word had two influences: the French suffrage and its origin, the Latin suffrāgium. The Latin root variously denoted a “voting tablet,” “ballot,” “voice,” “vote,” and, yes, “the right to vote.” The “voting” sense of the English suffrage may have been directly borrowed from this source in the 16th century while the earlier notion of “prayers” was taken from an intermediary French form meaning “support.”

It doesn’t stretch the imagination, then, to connect “prayers” and “voting” via the notion of “lending one’s support.” The word vote itself, after all, derives from the Latin vōtum, a “vow” or “wish,” eventually expressed with respect to some decision or person.

And as for the meaning of Latin’s suffrāgium? There are two theories. The first supposes the word joins sub (“under”) and fragor (“crash,” “din”). The idea, apparently, is a vote made under shouts of approval, perhaps not unlike the modern voice vote of aye’s and nay’s. The second thinks suffrāgium could blend that same sub and frangere, “to break,” like a little shard of tile once used to cast ballots.

There is some precedent for this broken tile explanation. The word ostracism indeed derives from the Greek ostrakon, a “tile” or “potsherd” used in votes to banish a person in ancient Athens. And similarly, the Greek kleros, source of clerk, referred to a “twig” used by ancient Greeks to cast lots. 

As it happens, Latin’s fragor, “noise,” is related to frangere, “to break,” and gives English other words like fractionfragment, and fracture. We’ve heard so much noise this 2016 presidential election, and we’ve experienced a lot of breakage. But there’s at least one thing that cuts through, one thing that keeps us together, and that’s exercising our suffrage.    

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“Musket”: the hawkish language of a gadfly?

Former Congressman Joe Walsh caused a stir (and probably a visit from the Secret Service) after he tweeted he’ll be grabbing his “musket” if Donald Trump loses the election. He added, “You in?” Walsh claimed he wasn’t calling for an armed revolution but just using musket as a symbol of protest. Either way, Walsh’s words were quite hawkish – and literally so, if we look to the etymology of musket.

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A call to…hawks? The Eurasian sparrowhawk. Image by Katie Fuller (Bogbumper), courtesy of Wikimedia Commons.  

Musket

English first fired off musket in the late 1500s. The Oxford English Dictionary (OED) attests the firearm in 1574, noting that it was the general term for an infantry gun until rifle supplanted it in the 19th century. The word is borrowed from the French mosquet, itself from the Italian moschetto, a “crossbow arrow.” Indeed, early muskets once shot arrows as well as bullets.

But in Italian, moschetto originally referred to the “sparrowhawk.” Both English and French also borrowed moschetto for this bird of prey; musket is a now-archaic term for a “male sparrowhawk.” But moschetto actually takes its name from an altogether different creature. Like its Spanish cousin mosquito, moschetto means “little fly.” It’s a diminutive form of mosca, “fly,” from Latin’s musca. The English midge is a possible cognate of this musca.   

This etymology leaves us with two questions. First, why would a hawk be named after an insect? Many philologists have maintained that the sparrowhawk was called “little fly” because it looks speckled with flies when it’s in flight. Others, though, observe that many small birds have been likened to flies.

Second, why would a gun be likened to a bird? A number of early firearms took the names of birds and beasts. The falconet and saker calibers shot off like swift falcons. Dragoon breathed fire like its mythical namesake. The culverin hissed like its etymological snake. The zumbooruk, mounted on a camel, stung like its Persian root for “hornet.” Musket, then, evolved from “sparrowhawk” to “crossbow arrow” to the “crossbow” itself, extended to the weapon’s technological update, the musket.

Regardless of the outcome, let’s hope that no muskets flare on Election Day – and that Walsh’s words are just the blather of a gadfly.

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A “nasty” little etymology

In the third and final presidential debate last night, Donald Trump – amid his yet more shocking refusal to say whether he’ll accept the election results – called Hillary Clinton “a nasty woman.” Nasty can be such a nasty word. Where does it come from?

Nasty

Nasty starts “fouling” up the English language in the 14th century. The Oxford English Dictionary (OED) first attests it in Carleton Brown’s 1390 Religious Lyrics of the 14th Century: “Whon we be nasti, nouȝt at neode, Neore wimmen help, hou schulde we fare?”

Back then, as it still does for some speakers of Black English, nasty meant “filthy” and “dirty.” The word has since made quite a semantic mess, so to speak: “offensive, annoying” (1470s); “unpleasant” (1540s); “repellent (to the senses)” and “lewd” (1600s); and “ill-tempered, spiteful” (1820s). Slang has also widely taken up nasty, from a term for “excellent” to sex-related usages.

For as much use as English has made of nasty, we aren’t certain about its origins. Here are three leading theories:

  1. Nasty comes from the Dutch nestig, “dirty” like a bird’s nest. The source of this word, alas , is also unclear.
  2. Nasty (and nestig) could be related to a Scandinavian source, such as the Swedish naskug, “dirty,” with nask meaning “dirt.” Walter Skeat maintains, though, this dialectical word lost an initial s- and comes from snaska, “to eat like a pig,” that is, greedily and noisily. Snaska, Skeat continues, imitates the sound of such consumption. Middle English has nasky, a variant of nasty, which suggests some Scandinavian word at least reinforced nasty if they’re not immediately related. 
  3. Nasty derives from the Old French nastre, “strange, lowly, bad,” shortened from villenastre, “infamous, ignoble.” Villenastre joins villein (source of villain, a “rustic” that became associated with more nefarious qualities, perhaps not unlike clown) and -aster, a pejorative suffix seen in the likes of poetaster, an “inferior” poet. 

Nasty, it seems, is a nasty little word with a nasty little etymology.

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Why do we call a tie a “draw”?

In his autobiography, Thomas Jefferson wrote: “If he lost the main battle, he returned upon you, and regained so much of it as to make it a drawn one.” Here, Jefferson is describing a legislative fight over land tenure, but some pundits might think it well characterizes Donald Trump’s performance in the second presidential debate. This quote isn’t just timely, though: It also points to the origin of why we call “ties” draws.

Draw

By the Oxford English Dictionary’s (OED) reckoning, the earliest record of draw, as in a contest that ends with no winner, comes in reference to an 1856 US chess match. Over the next few decades, writers marked off draw with quotes or italics, which shows the word was novel. The word was familiar by the 1870s.

This draw is short for draw-game, which the OED finds for a “tie” by 1825. A draw-game, in turn, is a variation on a drawn battle or drawn match. The OED dates drawn match to a 1610 letter from English diplomat Sir Dudley Carleton: “It concluded, as it is many times in a cock pit, with a drawn match; for nothing was in the end put to the question.” (Before pilots occupied them, game-cocks fought in cockpits.)

Why such a battle or match is characterized as “drawn” is unclear: Indeed, etymology often ends in draws. Drawn may be clipped from withdrawn, as in fighters who have withdrawn from the battlefield. Withdraw, “to take back or away,” features an old and original sense of the preposition with, “against,” even though it now, ironically enough, means “together.” Draw, meanwhile, is related to drag. And withdraw itself might be a calque, or loan translation, of Latin’s retrahere, “to retract.”

With some seeing the debate – set up as a town hall with drawn voters, so to speak – as a draw, we’ll see whether or not many GOP politicians continue withdrawing their support from Trump following the leak of his lewd comments. Either way, it certainly feels like none of us are winners when a presidential debate has to be dragged down so low.

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A “lewd” awakening

The Washington Post broke the bombshell story with this headline: “Trump recorded having extremely lewd conversation about women in 2005.” The candidate’s remarks, as many have rightly noted, aren’t just lewd, for in the video Trump boasts about sexual assault. But it’s this word lewd that has been littering the headlines since – and a word whose origins are quite surprising.

Lewd

Today, lewd means “offensive in a sexual way,” a sense which has come a far way from its roots. Lewd derives from the Old English lǽwede, when it meant “lay,” or a person who is not a member of the clergy. The Oxford English Dictionary (OED) first finds lewd in a late 9th-century translation of Bede’s Ecclesiastical History of the English People.

Clerics, unlike many historic laypersons, could read and write, which is why lewd went on to mean “uneducated” or “unlearned” in Middle English. The medieval mind associated this “ignorant” lewdness with “base,” “coarse,” and “vile” behavior, including “licentious” actions. (It had class associations as well.) These meanings emerge by the late 1300s, with Chaucer using lewd for “lascivious” in his Miller’s Prologue around 1386: “Lat be thy lewed dronken harlotrye.”

The deeper roots of lewd are unclear. Some, like Walter Skeat, think the Old English lǽwede is formed from the verb lǽwan, “to betray” or “weaken.” Is one lewd because their lack of education is betrayed, that is, exposed? Is one lewd because enfeeblement is a form of baseness? The sense development here is tricky.

Others, such as the OED, suppose the Old English lǽwede might have been borrowed from a late form of lāicus, a “lay” person, source of English’s own nonclerical lay as well as liturgy. Latin’s lāicus comes from Greek’s λᾱϊκός (laikos), referring to something “of the people” as opposed to the clergy. At root is λᾱός (laos), “the people,” which is featured in the name Nicholas: “victory-people,” which joins laos to nike (νίκη), the word for and goddess of “victory” as well as source of the athletic brand name.

Since the video’s release, politicians, pundits, and public figures have been decrying Trump’s comments. But, ironically enough for the etymology of lewd, many in the evangelical community continue to defend the Republican candidate – including some “un-lewd” clergy themselves.

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“Hoax”: just a little etymological hocus-pocus

Hillary Clinton keeps hitting Donald Trump over his claim that climate change is a hoax. While hoax is Clinton’s word, Trump did tweet that the Chinese created climate change to hurt US manufacturing. That’s a bit of magical thinking, shall we say, especially if we consider the roots of the word hoax (not to mention science).

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“By the virtue of hocus pocus…” A frontispiece from an early magic book, the 1635 Hocus Pocus Junior: The Anatomy of Legerdemain, or the Art of Juggling. Image from the Library of Congress.

Hoax

English has been pulling off hoaxes since the very end of the 18th century. The Oxford English Dictionary first cites the word as a verb in 1796, entered into Grose’s Classical Dictionary of the Vulgar Tongue: “Hoaxing, bantering, ridiculing. Hoaxing a quiz; joking an odd fellow. University wit.” The noun form emerges in the following decade, and has since connoted a fraud involving an elaborate or mischievous fabrication or fiction.

Most etymologists suppose that hoax develops out of hocus, which was a 17th-century noun and verb for “trick” – and later a criminal term for “drugging” someone, especially by means of liquor. Hocus is shortened from hocus pocus, used as a nickname for a “juggler” since the 1620s. Today, we admire jugglers for their deft hands and ball skills, but historically, jugglers were jesters and magicians, hence their – and ultimately the word hoax’s – association with various tricks. 

An Anglican bishop, John Tillotson, attempted some lexical legerdemain in his 1694 etymology for hocus pocus: “In all probability those common juggling words of hocus pocus are nothing else but a corruption of hoc est corpus, by way of ridiculous imitation of the priests of the Church of Rome in their trick of Transubstantiation.” In the Latin liturgy, a priest blesses the Eucharistic host qua sacrificial body of Jesus Christ by saying Hoc est corpus, or Hoc est corpus meum: “This is my body.” Devout Catholics believe the host actually becomes the body of Christ, which may help you appreciate Tillotson’s dig on his Christian counterparts. 

Hocus pocus, more likely, was just sham or dog Latin, words invented by these 17th-century performers to sound like Latin, perhaps playing with this prestige language of learning to lend an air of antique mystique to their act. Hocus-pocus was used of “jugglers” by 1624, as the magical formula by 1632. Hiccius doccius was another fakus Latinus magical formula the early conjurors used.

Hocus pocus may have pulled some other words out of its hat, too, like hokey-pokey, a slang variation for “hocus pocus” in the mid-1800s and a name for a cheap ice cream some decades after. (The origin of the dance is a bit more turned around.) And hokum – originally theater slang for “melodramatic speech,” now “nonsense,” which describes so much of what we’ve heard this election – apparently blends hocus-pocus and bunkum.

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6 political expressions that come from sports and gaming

In the run-up to tonight’s high-stakes showdown between Hillary Clinton and Donald Trump, some polls are showing that the two candidates are locked in a virtual dead heat. And as the two are set to square off, many want the media to raise the bar of expectations for Trump. The language of politics is no stranger to sports metaphors, but it’s easy to forget that these six terms, near clichés at this point in the campaign, started out as sporting or gaming expressions:

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Now that’ll win a high-stakes showdown. “Poker hand,” by Steve Gray, courtesy of freeimages.com.

1. Run-up

The original run-up took place in greyhound racing, specifically coursing, where the dogs chase hares. The portion of the race up to the first “turn” or “wrench” of the hare, technical terms in the sport, was called the run-up. The Oxford English Dictionary (OED) cites this in 1834. Runner-up is also a racing term, referring since the 1840s to a dog that came in second place in the final course of a race. Runner-up was soon after extended to other competitions.

2. High-stakes

Since at least the 1920s, the adjective high-stakes concerned gambling, especially a poker game with stakes that were high, or “large.” This use of high dates backs to the 1600s, and characterized gambling stakes (e.g., the stakes were high) since the 1700s. The origin of stake, as something wagered, is unknown, though many have tried to root it in a stake, a “post” on which bettors placed their wager in the form of clothing, jewelry, or the like.

3. Showdown

Showdown took its etymological seat at the poker table in the 1890s: when players show their cards, after all the betting is over, by laying them down face up to see who has the best hand. This showdown became a metaphor for other confrontations by the early 1900s.

4. Dead heat

When horses cross the finish line at the exact same time, often after running neck and neck, they end in a dead heat. Horse racing has been using this term since 1796, according to the OED’s records. Dead, here, is “absolute” or “downright,” a sense reaching back the 1600s and owing to the utter finality of death. A heat is a single race, also dating to the 1600s and presumably named for the burst of exertion therein involved. 

5. Square off

Boxers square off when they take their fighting stances. The OED attests this American usage in 1838. Slightly earlier variants include square at, square up, or simply square. In such a posture, the limbs assume the rough outline of a square, a word which has also described a “strong” or “solid” body since the 1400s.

6. Raise the bar

In the high jump, athletes compete to clear ever higher levels of a horizontal bar. This bar, used in reference to the sport since the mid 1800s, could be raised or lowered, which became an effective metaphor for setting different levels of expectations by the 1970s.

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Looms, lilies, and lifespans: The metaphorical stamina of “stamina”

In recent campaigning, Donald Trump has been claiming Hillary Clinton “lacks the physical and mental stamina” to do the work of the presidency. His attacks in no way stand up to the facts, but one thing that does “stand up” is stamina, at least etymologically speaking.

A well-planted metaphor

The Oxford English Dictionary first attests stamina (in Latin form) in 1542, when it referred to the “natural constitution” of an organism, a kind of inborn vitality determining how long it would live and its capacity for resisting disease and hardship. Around 1676, stamina, now as an English word, was naming the “rudiments” or “essential qualities” of an organism, later extended figuratively, say, to an institution or movement. By 1726, as found in the letters of Jonathan Swift, stamina jumped to physical “vigor,” especially in the sense of withstanding the likes of illness and fatigue. Come the 1800s, it reached “moral and intellectual robustness and endurance.”

Originally, stamina was a plural noun both in English and Latin, its source. The singular is stamen. (English has been using stamina in the singular since the 18th century.) We are familiar with stamen in botanical contexts: it’s the part of the plant that makes the pollen. Flemish anatomist Adriaan van den Spiegel is credited for first employing it in this modern, scientific sense in 1633. And thanks to English Bishop John Wilkins, stamen pollinated the English tongue as such by 1668.

We should note, though, that centuries earlier, Pliny, the Roman scholar, lent Latin’s stamen to the lily’s prominent pollen producer; Hesychius of Alexandria, a Greek lexicographer, used its Greek counterpart (στῆμα, stoma) of plants early on as well.

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The lily’s stamens, or “stamina.” Image by Mira Pavlakovic, courtesy of freeimages.com.

Common “threads”

So, what’s the common thread? Well, it’s just that. Latin’s stamen means “thread,” specifically the “thread of the warp in the upright loom.” The warp acts as a kind of foundation for the weave, which points us to stamen’s literal, base meaning: “that which stands.” Stand is the keyword here, as stamen and stand are ultimately cousins, sharing an ancient ancestor in *sta-, “stand.” This root is a mind-bogglingly prolific root, seen in Afghanistan, establish, obstacle, steed, and system, to name a paltry few derivatives.

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The vertical threads are the warp, which the Romans called the “stamen.” Image by Tom Pickering, courtesy of freeimages.com.

Pliny, apparently, saw the lily’s stamen as a “thread,” as did van den Spiegel again many years later. But the ancient Romans also saw their mythology in stamen. They used stamen for the “thread of life spun by the Fates,” imagined as three sisters who spun, measured, and cut the threads that controlled the lives and destinies of humanity. In the 18th century, English writers enjoyed using stamen in this very sense, also broadening it to one’s “inborn vitality” much like we saw in the history of stamina.

And the common thread for all of English’s stamina and stamen is metaphor. A plant stamen can resemble a thread. The rudiments of an entity, that early stamina, are its foundation: the warp of a weave. And stamina was once understood as one’s inherent makeup, measuring out how long one would live, like those threads of the Fates.

In the 2016 election, nothing has seem fated – except for the stamina we’ve all shown in making it this far in what continues to be an unprecedented presidential campaign.

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What is the “vice” in “vice president”?

In what many are calling a last-ditch effort to shake up the campaign, this week Ted Cruz announced former Republican presidential candidate and Hewlett-Packard CEO Carly Fiorina as his vice presidential nominee should he win his party’s nomination.

For many, Cruz’s pick is raising lots of questions, given that it’s now mathematically impossible for him to win the nomination outright. But there’s one big question whose answer I’d really like to know: What is the vice in vice president?

The many virtues of vice   

We often poke fun of the second-place office, but the vice presidency is an important one: It’s a heartbeat away from the presidency, as candidates consider when vetting their running mates.

The etymology of the title bears out the importance of the vice presidency: in Latin, vice means “in place of” or “in succession to.” For example, when the president sends the second-in-command to an important state function, the vice president is standing in place of – representing – the president at the event.

The Oxford English Dictionary (OED) first cites vice-president in 1574, when “Sergius the Vice-president of Asia” must have really balanced out the ticket. This vice- technically functions as a prefix; the U.S. Constitution’s use of Vice President may obscure vice’s original grammatical role. The abbreviation V.P. is cited by 1887, the colloquial veep by 1949.

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A screenshot of the first appearance of “Vice President” in the U.S. Constitution, in Article I, Section 3.

The earliest vice the OED finds is vice-collector, which it dates to 1497. (And you thought substitute teachers had it bad. Good thing we don’t call them “vice-teachers.”) The prefix proliferated in the 17th and 18th centuries, titling the likes of vice-apostle, vice-butler, vice-Christ, vice-husband, and vice-viceroy. A vice-viceroy was an official serving in place of the viceroy, who served in place of the monarch (French roi, “king”) in a colony, for instance. Old French at one point rendered Latin’s vice as vis-, which survives in English’s phonetically challenging viscount.

Latin’s vice is a form (the ablative case) of the noun vicis, which meant a “change,” “turn,” “succession,” or “place,” hence vice’s “in place of.” The word also appears in the adverbial phrase vice versa, a construction (the ablative absolute) literally meaning “the place having been turned.”

A vicar originally served in place of a parish priest. Parents live vicariously through their children’s endeavors. The vicissitudes of life are its constant and unpredictable changes. All of these words feature, at root, Latin’s vicis.

After Cruz made news with his pick for Number Two, many, like former Speaker John Boehner, have attacked Cruz’ vices. Others, meanwhile, think Carly Fiorina will bring out Trump’s own vices – and viciously bring it to the frontrunner. This vice, and its adjective, vicious, are not related. The root is Latin’s vitium, a “fault,” “defect,” or “offense,” source of the verb vitiate.

Changing vice’s ways

Vicis has some notable Germanic cousins. They demonstrate quite the change, for English owes both week and weak to a common, Indo-European ancestor shared with vicis.

Week is from Old English’s wiecan, whose various Germanic cognates meaning “office” and “function” may point back to some sort of ritual “changing over” of duties after the period of a week. The seven-day week is found in ancient Mesopotamian cultures, though its modern iteration is owed to Jewish tradition; some think of the Sabbath as marking the “turning” period in the week.

Old English had wác, which corresponded to the Old Norse form that eventually yielded weak, going strong in spite of meaning “having deficient strength” since the 1300s. One of the early usages of weak actually meant “bending,” due to lack of strength. Indo-European linguists propose a Proto-Indo-European root of *weik-, meaning “bend.” (The cognate wicker preserves this sense in its bent benches.) Something that bends is not sturdy, stiff, or strong. When you bend something, you change it.

Cruz’s vice presidential announcement may ultimately signal the weakness of his presidential prospects now, but one thing is for sure: the senator certainly doesn’t seem to be bending before the Republican convention this summer, as he wants no one in place of him in the Oval Office.

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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.

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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.

m ∫ r ∫