Words Worth Knowing: Phony

The Word Worth Knowing this week is Phony.

Don’t you think the Phony word is funny? Hearing somebody say “phony” makes me think of anything but the real meaning. And that’s because this word had did not have the current meaning until the late 1800s, when we stole it from the Irish language. How? And why? I’ll tell you here, after a couple of definitions.

Dictionary Definition


Phony: adjective. Represented as real but actually false; intended to deceive. (Merriam Webster Dictionary).

Phony: noun. (of a person) insincere or pretentious. (Collins English Dictionary).

Phony: noun combining form. Sound. Forming nouns corresponding to words ending in -phone (such as telephony) (Oxford Living Dictionary).

I think Phony is a great word to use in a pun, however it is used just occasionally.  According to the Collins English dictionary, Phony is one of the 30,000 most commonly used words.


If you don’t want to be fooled by a phony, read these three good examples on how to use the word correctly:


“A serial “swatting” hoaxer, who called police 17 times with phony reports of shots fired, kids not breathing and armed home invasions, faces numerous charges.”

From NJ website Article: N.J. serial ‘swatting’ hoaxer faces 17 very real charges for phony emergency calls, cops say. 2019

“The phony offer starts with a message promising hundreds of dollars to anyone willing to advertise a company on their vehicle for a few weeks.”

From Abc Eyewitness News Article: Scam alert: Phony job offer could cost you hundreds. 2019

“It was a phony witch hunt,” El Chapo said, of his trial. “It was a phony, rigged witch hunt, and the charges against me were fake news and a disgrace”.

From The Bulletin website Article: Letters: Support Bend City Council change; We need more repentance; Don’t throw things from chairlift. 2019


The Pioneers of Scams


The history of the word Phony goes back to the end of the 19th century. At that time the eastern Atlantic U.S. had a significant Irish population.  These Irish-Americans maintained their language.  Thus, they transmitted to the American population several of their terms, including the word “Fainne”, which means “ring”.   This word was later adopted as “Fawny” and eventually would become “Phony“.

But you are surely wondering how it is possible that the meaning of this word was transformed from something as innocent as a finger ring to the description of someone or something false and manipulative.

The reason for this change is also the fault of the Irish. Some of them invented scams in the middle of the street to get money out of innocent passers-by without having to spend much effort. One of the most successful scams was the “Fawney Rig”.

The idea was to leave a cheap ring painted gold in the middle of the street and wait for a passer-by to pick it up. At that moment the Irishman approaches to try to pick up the ring at the same time and confronts at the passer-by for deciding who should take it.

To “solve” the problem, the Irishman offered the passer-by to give the ring in exchange for a small sum of money. It seemed reasonable to passers-by to pay so cheaply for a gold ring and they usually accepted the deal, but in reality the deal was a theft as it was a tin or aluminum ring at best.

With the passing of time the “Fawney Rig” became recognized, and as people stopped falling into the trap.  However, they in turn created the word “Phony” as an American name for all swindlers!

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