The word "phony" isn't related to the word "phone." It comes from an Irish word that means "finger." Here's why.
I spent a few hours at the DMV this week—for my foreign listeners, that’s the Department of Motor Vehicles, where you get your driver’s license or register your car—and I kept staring at a poster that said, “Don’t be a phony. Put down your phone while driving.” Good advice, and some cute word play because I felt certain that the word “phony” could not be related to the word “phone.”
When I got home, I looked it up, and I was right. People did start using the word “phony” in the late 1800s, about 20 years after the first telephone call, but the two words are not related.
According to Online Etymology Dictionary, “phony” probably comes from “fawney.” But here’s where I was wrong. I figured “fawney” would have to do with a phony person fawning over someone important or special because if someone says, “You’re such a phony,” it seems to me that it often means you’ve been nice to someone you don’t like for personal gain—fawning over that person. But instead, “fawney” probably comes from an Irish word that means “finger” and was used to refer to a con, called a fawney rig, in which charlatans would pass off a brass ring as gold.
The 1811 Dictionary of the Vulgar Tongue describes it like this:
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.
In other words, the con man tricks someone into thinking they’ve found a valuable ring together and convinces the mark to pay him for it.
A rig was a game or trick, so a fawney rig was a finger trick or a ring trick and, thus, a con run with a finger ring.
And of course, this whole line of thought made me wonder why we use the word “fawn” to describe someone who’s being overly attentive. That meaning of “fawn” comes from an Old English word that meant “glad or happy,” especially like a dog wagging its tail, and you can see how a person fawning over a superior could seem like an exuberant dog.
“Fawn,” the young deer, has a completely different origin. It comes from the same Latin root as the word “fetus,” which meant “bringing forth of young,” and at some times “fawn” meant any young animal rather than just a young deer.
If you listened last week, you’ll know that this means that “fawn” (the young deer) and “fawn” (to fall all over someone), are homographs: words that are spelled the same but have different meanings and often different origins. How’s that for continuity?
Mignon Fogarty is Grammar Girl and the founder of Quick and Dirty Tips. Check out her New York Times best-seller, “Grammar Girl’s Quick and Dirty Tips for Better Writing.”