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.”