Q&A: Phony vs phoney

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Each week here at the Australian Writers’ Centre, we dissect and discuss, contort and retort, ask and gasp at the English language and all its rules, regulations and ridiculousness. It’s a celebration of language, masquerading as a passive-aggressive whinge about words and weirdness. This week, we’re such phonies…

Q: Hey AWC, can we talk about “phony” vs “phoney” please?

A: Let’s guess… you’d like to know which spelling is “phoney” and which is “phony”?

Q: Well, yes.

A: It’s a fair question. But first, it’s worth looking at the origin of the word.

Q: Hold the phone… we’re going on another journey. Maybe related to telephone, right?

A: Wrong number. The telephone was dragged kicking and screaming into the world by Alexander Graham Bell back in 1876 – and it took just eight years for the shortened “phone” to appear. But it wasn’t the origin here.

Q: Then what WAS?

A: The idea of phoney/phony meaning “fake” or “not genuine” first appeared in 1899 and had nothing to do with the ring ring thing.

Q: So, how was it spelt?

A: This adjective was originally spelt “phony” – appearing in a New York jewellery review that had described a crime as: “His most successful swindle was selling ‘painted' or ‘phony' diamonds.”

Q: Ahhh, the old painted diamond trick huh. So, if it wasn’t derived from “phone”, where did that word come from?

A: Good question. Some say it was an alteration of the 18th century word “fawney” – the name for a “gilt brass ring used by swindlers…”

Q: Those sneaky swindlers!

A: Yes, when will they stop their swindling?

Q: So, is “fawney” related to the way someone might “fawn” over someone?

A: Nope, it’s not even related to that. This “fawney” simply came from Irish for “finger” and was a brass ring used to trick people into thinking it was a gold ring.

Q: Okay, so what you’re telling me is that the phony fawney wasn’t related to phone, but still went “ring, ring”?

A: Brass ring, gold ring – yes, very clever.

Q: Well, that original 1899 article settles it – the correct spelling is “phony”, yes?

A: Well, not everywhere.

Q: New phony, who dis?

A: Haha. While North America stayed with the original shortened version “phony”, UK and its colonies (including Australia) added the “e” to create “phoney”.

Q: So, do Americans think that its “phony” to write “phoney”?

A: Absolutely. They’ve always been fans of shortening words and this time, considering they coined it, they can probably own this one. But don’t forget to “add E for England” for everyone else.

Q: Including here in Australia, where we should write “phoney”, correct?

A: Yes, that’s right. Macquarie Dictionary acknowledges the existence of both, but “phoney” is the less phoney of the spellings here.

Q: Time to hang up I think…

If you have a grammar gripe or punctuation puzzle that you’d like our Q&A to explore, email it to us today!

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