Q&A: Phony vs phoney

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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