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shameless pleading

Phony

The ring of hooey.

Dear Word Detective:  Why is something bogus referred to as being “phony”?  I hope this  has a more fascinating history than being the mispronunciation of an old Gaelic malt beverage or something.  Is it hilarious? — Brian Hennessey.

Hilarious?  No, but parts of it are amusing.  By the way, and this is on an entirely unrelated topic, something dawned on me last week.  There is a persistent etymological legend that the word “posh” (meaning “fancy and expensive”) was originally an acronym for “Port Out, Starboard Home,” supposedly specifying which side of the steamship had the shadier, cooler and thus preferred (and pricier) cabins on the voyage between England and India in the 1800s.  The story is bunk, and “posh” actually derives from a Romany (Gypsy) word for “money.”  But I suddenly remembered that when I was studying seamanship in my youth, we learned the phrase “Red, Right, Return” as a reminder to keep the red channel markers on your starboard (right) side when entering a harbor (and of course, the green on your left, or port side).  I suspect that the “Port Out, Starboard Home” business started as a similar mnemonic reminder to keep the red channel markers on your left (port) side leaving the harbor, and on your starboard coming home.  At some point, someone noticed that the resulting acronym “posh” also meant “ritzy,” and dreamed up a story to explain that coincidence.  I think this is almost certainly the “missing link” between “posh” meaning “fancy” and the whole topic of ocean travel.  After all, if you were sitting at your desk trying to concoct a faux etymology for “posh” meaning “fancy,” steamships would probably not be your first choice of subject.  It’s more likely you’d choose something like “Persons Owed Subservience and Humility.”

Onward.  There are a number of similarly silly stories floating around purporting to explain “phony” (or, as the Brits prefer, “phoney”) meaning, since the mid-19th century, “fake, sham, counterfeit” or “insincere” (“They had this headmaster, Mr. Haas, that was the phoniest bastard I ever met in my life,” J.D. Salinger, Catcher in the Rye, 1951).  My favorite is the theory that it originally referred to a widespread fear in the 1880s that the newly invented telephone would be used to deceive people.  Conversations over the new-fangled gadget were, in this tale, considered automatically untrustworthy and disparaged as “phony,” which was later applied to  anything not real or sincere.  This theory would be, perhaps, a bit more believable if “phony” had not appeared in print more than ten years before the first telephone was patented by Alexander Graham Bell and decades before the infernal device became common in homes.

To cut to the chase, most authorities now agree that the source of “phony” is the old English slang word “fawney,” drawn from the Irish word “fainne,” meaning “ring.”  In the 19th century, English “fawney men” (con artists) practiced a scam called the “fawney rig” (“rig” being slang for “trick”).  The trickster would make a great show of  “finding” a gold ring on the street and then agreeing to sell it to a passerby for a fraction of its worth. The ring was actually worthless brass, of course, and had been dropped on the street by the “finder” himself.  When this racket inevitably migrated to the US, “fawney” became “phony,” and we gained a very useful synonym for “fake or false.”

1 comment to Phony

  • Gary B

    Re Posh:

    I have seen this argument in several places, but I continue to doubt the Romany derivation of posh.

    My grandmother, who was born in Scotland and grew up in India (pronounced, “Indja” of course), was the one who introduced me to the Port Out Starboard Home version. She was born in 1878 and first sailed to India in 1880 or 1881 at the age of two and 1/2. Thus, if the acronym derivation of posh came later than the Romany version, it happened before 1880.

    According to her the term arose because of the fact the passengers preferred to have something to look at in the coastal steamers (and sailing ships) of that era. I think it was actually more related to vacationers into the Med, rather than all the way to India, as it had to do with round trip tickets. Going south, the port side was the land side, while the starboard side had nothing but ocean. Going north, the reverse was true. The passenger reservations or tickets for those who could afford this had the abbreviation “P.O.S.H.” on them, and thus the term began to be used by the stewards to refer to that set of passengers.

    I like to think (rightly or wrongly) that my grandmother knew everything, especially something in her own experience. I also have to wonder how a Romany term for money would have made it into English so conveniently, so I will continue to think this question is still not settled. :)

    Of course, this might also have been her mother’s little joke…

    I suppose that if any ship passenger tickets of that time still exist, they might provide some useful evidence for or against.

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