Tuesday, April 14th, 2020...8:24 pm

From Fawney to Phoney

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Cathlin Berndt

Image by Caio Resende from Pexels.com.

Phoney, which today means “Fake, sham, counterfeit; false; insincere” (OED s.v. phoney, sense 1), seems like a pretty straightforward word. However, that is not the case. This word, according to Cohen, has been a debated topic for over 100 years (Cohen 1). Phoney (or phony) is an interesting word. It looks like the word phone but has absolutely nothing to do with phones. There is evidence that the word phoney originated from the word fawney which means “A finger-ring” and is an Irish slang word (OED s.v. fawney, sense 1). The earliest form of fawney is in relation to fawney-rig which was a con game where someone would drop a ring in front of the person they were trying to con. They would then attempt to sell them the ring claiming that it was being sold at a way cheaper value than what it should have been, when in reality, they were making about ten times as much as the ring was worth (OED s.v. fawney, sense 2)

Another possible connection between fawney and phoney is the fact that there used to be a jewelry store called Forney that sold cheap jewelry. However “Forney establishes the fact that a pronunciation existed that represents the transition from fawney to phoney” rather than providing evidence that Forney Jewelry became associated with fawney, as in “ring” (Tamony 102).

Another piece of evidence Cohen notes is that Simes, who wrote a dictionary of Australian slang, does make some notes about phoney under the definition of fawney. It appears that phoney is just a misspelling of fawney (Cohen 5). It is put down to “ignorance of spelling” (5).

Since being derived from fawney, phoney appears in the United States in 1893 in the form of phoney, being used as slang but in this case was used in terms of horse racing, more specifically, in regards to “bookmakers issuing betting slips on which they do not intend to pay out” (OED s.v. phoney, sense 1). It is assumed that the word was in use before 1862, at least in Georgia because, in evidence we will discuss later, Moody did not explain the word to his wife in his letter (Cohen 4).

Some of the evidence for phoney originating from fawney comes from a person named B. Moody who used phoney in letters back to his wife. Unfortunately, not a lot of information is known about who Moody was. We do know that some of his letters, including the one with the phoney evidence, were “written in a Confederate Army camp near Yorktown” (Cohen 2), Virginia and that he later became a corporal (Cohen 2). Some of his letters are dated 1862, which is before the first dated entry in the OED (Cohen 2). The problem is, Moody did not adhere to standardized spelling and instead opted for spelling things how they sounded, which is fine until you are looking for etymologies and using it as a base for scholarly work (3).

However, all this hard work put into finding the etymology of phoney/fawney seems to all be in vain. The piece of evidence holding this etymology together is Moody’s letters to his wife. There is one big problem though. In some of his other letters phoney is used as a substitution for funny. So it turns out Moody’s letters may be unreliable due to the fact that Moody did not adhere to standardization of spelling (Cohen 3, 9). For example, below is a sample of one of Moody’s letters.

“I would like to no what litel fony thing you have bin dooing that you air a fraid that I wood laf at you about as I love to laf I wood bee glad to bee with you a while so I could laf withe you a while”

And while we may laugh at the spelling, it serves as evidence that what was originally thought to be a shift from fawney to phoney, may actually have been because Moody did not use standard spelling and therefore he could have been meaning funny or phoney at different times when writing letters.

The study of the phoney is inconclusive because, based on Moody’s other letters, phony could also mean “funny.” This is quite a funny predicament if you think about it. Scholars are trying to use a letter that was written by a man for his wife without using standard spelling because he didn’t know standard spelling. That is like writing a long text to someone and autocorrect failing, and you being unbothered to go and fix it. And then, scholars find it and try to use it to make sense of the etymology of a word, but because you misspelled something, they can’t use it and therefore, you have foiled future scholars. So the lesson to take from this is to throw spelling out the window just in case scholars happen upon it. Think of it as a long term prank that you won’t see the benefit of, but it’s still funny. Of course, this only applies to writing in a nonprofessional setting, try it at work and I can’t guarantee that it will work out for you.

Work Cited

Cohen, Paul S. S. “The Genuine Etymological Story of Phon(e)y.” Transactions of the Philological Society, vol. 109, no. 1, 2011, pp. 1–11.

[OED.] Oxford English Dictionary Online. Oxford University Press, 2019. www.oed.com. Accessed 19. 2019.

Resende Caio. Two rings on a book. Pexels.com.   https://www.pexels.com/photo/love-rings-wedding-bible-56926/

Tamony, Peter. “The Origin of ‘Phoney’.” Dictionaries, vol. 12, no. 12, 1990, pp. 101–105.

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