A REFERENCE in the last week’s column to the “phoney war” leading up to the British general election campaign has prompted a reader to ask for an explanation of “phoney” itself.
With pleasure, sir, especially at St. Patrick’s Day is just behind us and phoney has a fascinating Irish history.
Most dictionaries define the word “false, sham, or pretended” but a few venture a derivation other than “obscure and uncertain.” Some suggest that it stems from Mr. Bell’s invention, and in justification quote from the New York Evening Telegram of 1904:
“The word implies that a thing so qualified has no more substance than a telephone talk with a suppositious friend.”
The writer must be given full marks for imagination, while making allowances for his probable lack of familiarity with Celtic languages. You can hardly expect a New York journalist to know that phoney’s genuine roots are in the Gaelic word “fainne” (roughly pronounced “fonya”) meaning finger-ring.
It was introduced into English underworld slang by Irish confidence tricksters who specialised in passing off gilt rings as solid gold. As a result the conmen came to be known as “fawny coves.”
The con was recorded as long ago as 1781, but the word then vanished from UK English before reappearing in America round about the turn of the century.
Gaelic-speaking Irish emigrants must certainly have taken the original word with them to the United States, and probably the con trick as well. In any event, the expression “phoney man” crept into American usage as a peddler of cheap imitation jewellery.
“Phoney” returned across the Atlantic in 1939 when American war-correspondents — who were widely quoted in British newspapers — began to speak of the “phoney war.”
While the record is now firmly entrenched in the language on both sides of the Atlantic, its ancestor is also enjoying a revival. Although “fainne” is still principally a finger-ring, the name is also applied to a ring-shaped lapel badge worn by Gaelic speakers in both Ireland and Scotland to show that they are fluent in the old Celtic tongue.
Despite its meaning, there is nothing fake about phoney’s linguistic pedigree — unlike other 350 or so words which are listed in the O E D Supplement as “spurious.”
They comprise a splendid collection of “words that never were” — misbegotten offspring of learned error such as momblishness, dog-ray, gofish, phantomnation, jimwhiskee, eposculation, and tantling.
They deserve a column of their own, so next week we will take a closer look at the genuine phoneys — an expression which sounds as Irish as phoney itself.