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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.”

Fair / Fare

This way to the Egress.

Dear Word Detective:  While watching the weather forecast, my wife and I saw a tagline that said “Heavy rains lower fair prices.” As we had the TV muted, we couldn’t be sure what the statement meant.  Then we began wondering if the various fairs (pleasing, unbiased, and a country gathering) and fares (fee for travel and subject of dinner) were related. Can you shed some light on this? — Ray.

That’s a good question.  Now you’ve got me wondering what they meant.  I guess the local cow-fest gotten so soggy that candy apples were going two for a dime.  Speaking of county fairs, someone at the Associated Press was clearly having fun last week when they penned the  Hollywood-esque headline “Insane Killer Escapes on Field Trip to County Fair.”  They loved it so much, in fact, that they used the phrase “insane killer” in follow up stories for several days until someone in management apparently ordered them to stop.  Maybe they were angling for a job at the New York Post, purveyor of such legendary headlines as “Headless Corpse in Topless Bar.”

The short answer to your rather complex question is that two of the three “fairs” you mention are related to each other, but one is not, and both kinds of “fare” are actually the same word.  In no case, however, is there any connection between “fair” and “fare.”  Clear as mud, right?

The “county fair” kind of “fair,” meaning “a periodic public gathering,” usually with a unifying theme or rationale, is the simplest of the bunch to explain.  In English, the noun “fair” in this sense dates back to the 14th century and came to us via Old French from the Latin “feria,” meaning “holiday.”  That “feria” was a close relative of the Latin “festus,” meaning “joyful,” which gave us the modern English words “festival” and “feast.”

The adjective “fair” (“fair price,” “fair weather,” etc.) is a different word entirely.  Derived from ancient Germanic roots, it appeared in Old English with the general meaning of “pleasing or beautiful.”  It’s this original meaning we find in such phrases as “fair weather.”

“Fair” went on, however, to develop a dizzying array of related but distinct meanings.  From “beautiful” it took on overtones of “elegant in speech and deportment” (as in “My Fair Lady”), as well as, regarding personal appearance, “without blemish” (“fair skin”) and “light” (particularly hair).  “Fair” gradually acquired connotations of “clean and pure” in matters of social conduct and character as well, and came to mean “equitable, not taking unfair advantage” (thus “fair deal,” “fair price,” etc.), as well as “unbiased” in matters of judgment (“fair trial”).

“Fare” is derived from a Germanic root meaning “to go or travel,” which gave us a verb “to fare” meaning “to travel” as well as a noun “fare” meaning “journey.”  The use of “fare” to mean “money charged to travel” appeared in the 15th century , and “fare” meaning “food served” is even older, dating back to the 1200s.  “Fare” meaning “food” probably originally referred to the meals encountered on one’s journey, which later broadened to include any meal.  Similarly, the sense of “fare” meaning “journey” or “mission” gave us compounds such as “seafaring” and “warfare.”  In the somewhat vaguer sense of “state of being,” it also gave us “welfare” meaning “well-being” or “condition of living.”

Nip it in the bud

Stop that this instant.

Dear Word Detective:  My husband’s grandmother, who lived to be 99-1/2, always used the phrase “just nip it in the bud.”  We were wondering where this originated.  I know I can look it up elsewhere; however, I love the way you tell a story! — Meredith.

Well, I do my best.  But I’m wondering whether you mean the stories about the development of words and phrases, or the stories about the cats, the dogs, and our decrepit house. Maybe I should try harder to merge the two narratives.  Anybody know how many cats Julius Caesar had?  Shakespeare was pet-friendly, after a fashion (“The cat will mew and dog will have his day,” Hamlet, Act V), although he certainly wouldn’t have won any awards from the ASPCA (“Fillet of a fenny snake, In the cauldron boil and bake; Eye of newt and toe of frog, Wool of bat and tongue of dog, Adder’s fork and blind-worm’s sting, Lizard’s leg and owlet’s wing…,” Macbeth, Act IV).  Note to self: pick up some wool of bat on the way home.

To “nip something in the bud” means to stop it in an early stage of its development, before it can mature.  The phrase first appeared in print, as far as we know, in the late 16th century (with “bloom” standing in for “bud”), and it’s still going strong.  A search of Google News at the moment produces 457 hits for “nipped in the bud,” ranging from coverage of our so-called economy (“But the emerging recovery among nine Midwestern states … was nipped in the bud,” Kansas City Star) to the drearily inevitable punning headline on a news story about a pot bust (“Large marijuana garden nipped in the bud,” KTVL, Oregon).

The roots of “to nip in the bud” are, as it happens, horticultural.  Growers frequently “nip” (pinch or snip off) new buds on plants and trees to stop them from developing for one reason or another, often to force the plant to put its energies to more productive uses.  (I have, as you may have guessed, just exhausted my knowledge of horticulture.)  In any case, this gardening practice made such a good metaphor for stopping something before it really got going that it’s been in constant use in that sense since the 1600s.

Interestingly, something being “nipped in the bud” back then was sometimes considered a bad thing (“Dost thou approach to censure our delights, And nip them in the bud?”, 1658), but for the past few centuries “to nip it in the bud” has been seen as most often necessary and desirable (“This was a very dangerous thing and should be nipped in the bud immediately, he felt,” 1998).

The “nip” in the phrase, incidentally, is the common verb “to nip,” meaning “to pinch or bite” or “to seize, separate, remove,” and comes from Germanic roots.  When Grandpa called children “little nippers,” he was using a term that originally meant “pickpocket” (from “nipping,” or seizing the victim’s wallet).  A “nip in the air” is the pinch or bite of the cold, and the “nip” of brandy one takes to ward off a chill comes from “nipperkin,” originally a measure equal to a very small amount (just a “pinch”) of liquor, which itself is almost certainly related to “nip.”