Printable Version
Pronunciation: fo-nee Hear it!

Part of Speech: Adjective, Noun

Meaning: 1. (Adjective) Fake, not genuine, counterfeit. 2. (Noun) A fake or counterfeit object, a sham. 3. (Noun) A person pretending to be someone he or she is not.

Notes: J. D. Salinger legitimized today's Good Word in his novel, Catcher in the Rye. Before this novel, phony was just another slang term for "fake". For a while it was spelled phoney, a spelling that is still favored in the UK. It has a full lexical family, including an adverb, phonily (don't forget to change the Y to I), comparatives, phonier and phoniest, and a regular noun phoniness. Although basically an adjective, like many adjectives (empty, red, republican), it may be used transparently as a noun with the meanings above.

In Play: This word is quite common today; we chose it mostly because of its history (see below). It has been used so long in reference to counterfeit money that a slip-of-the-tongue error associated with it has become common, too: funny money: "Why do you think this $3 bill is phony (funny)?" Because it accidentally looks and sounds like the Greek root phon(e), there is lots of room to play with this word: "I can't eat dinner without some telephony interrupting me with a free offer that would end up costing me a hundred bucks or more."

Word History: Phony has nothing to do with telephones or any other kind of sound or sound device. This word arose from a confidence game played by British swindlers of old called the "fawney ring". In this scam, one conspirator drops a gilded brass (phony gold) ring on the sidewalk. An accomplice picks it up in front of the victim. The ring is then sold to the victim for less than its ostensible value, but far more than the real value. Why fawney? That is simply the British pronunciation of the Irish word for ring: finne. Fawney became phoney, then phony in the US, whence it's new meaning entered England. (Our gratitude to Mark Bailey for suggesting today's word is quite genuine and not the least bit phony.)

Dr. Goodword,

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