Wednesday, September 19, 2012

Word of the day: phony

Teaching a Sappho poem (the fourth poem on this page), I showed my students the first stanza in Greek. It’s a fun thing to do, even for the Greekless: at least a handful of words in transliterated Greek will immediately suggest English descendants, reducing in some small way the distance between the ancient world and our own. For example: φωνείσας, phoneisas, a form of φωνεῖν, phonein, to produce a sound. After we hit phonics, phonograph, and telephone, I wondered: could phonein explain phony — something that sounds plausible, but isn’t?

Uh, no. Merriam-Webster’s Collegiate Dictionary suggests that phony may derive from an “alteration of fawney gilded brass ring used in the fawney rig, a confidence game, from Irish fáinne ring, from Old Irish ánne.” The Oxford English Dictionary has a citation from Grose’s Classical Dictionary of the Vulgar Tongue (1823) that explains the game:

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.
M-W suggests that the Old Irish ánne is “perhaps akin” to anus. Which seems to make sense if we’re speaking of phonies.

comments: 2

Andrew Hickey said...

Interesting. I'd always heard a folk etymology that 'phony' was used as a name for con-men who used the telephone in the early days of that technology in the same way that Nigerian spammers do now. This one makes rather more sense.

Michael Leddy said...

I like that folk etymology. And your comment reminds me: I have several million dollars that I need to take out of the country. Any interest?