January 22, 2018


Friday, May 19, 2017

Buzzword of the Year: FAKE

By Liliana Palermo
For the Herald

'Fake' Etymology: The Story behind One of the Dictionary’s Most Intriguing Words

It’s probably fair to say that fake is fast becoming one of the biggest buzzwords (1) of 2017. But behind the word is a rather tricky—and largely unsolved—etymological story that takes us back to the secret slang of early 19th century criminals. Take a look at this:

“To fake any person or place may signify to rob them. To fake a person may also imply to shoot, wound, or cut. To fake a man out and out (2) is to kill him. A man who inflicts wounds upon, or otherwise disfigures, himself, for any sinister purpose, is said to have faked himself. If a man’s shoe happens to pinch, or gall his foot, from its being over tight, he will complain that his shoe fakes his foot sadly. It also describes the doing of any act, or the fabricating anything, as, to fake your slangs, is to cut your irons in order to escape from custody; to fake your pin, is to create a sore leg, or to cut it, as if accidentally, in hopes to obtain a discharge from the army or navy, to get into the doctor’s list, etc.”

That’s an extract from A New and Comprehensive Vocabulary of the Flash (3) Language, a dictionary of criminal slang compiled by James Hardy Vaux in 1819. Surprisingly, this definition provides us with the earliest known record of the current meaning of fake. Although the Oxford English Dictionary dates the word to 1775, their earlier record of it looks to be a misreading (4) of false, and so can’t be guaranteed. Fake, in the sense of something being bogus or counterfeit (5), apparently began life a little over 200 years ago among the “flash” language used by criminals in 18th- and 19th-century England.

Vaux’s “flash” was a veiled jargon (6) used by criminals to keep their activities a secret from the authorities, their victims, or anyone else who happened to overhear (7) their scheming (8). For example, a jump was a ground-floor window. Dummy-hunters were robbers of wallets and pocketbooks. A fly cove was a shopkeeper who could not easily be robbed. A hoxter was the inside pocket of a coat. And knapping a Jacob from a danna-drag meant “stealing a ladder from a night workman” for the purposes of scaling a wall or reaching a high window.

It’s fair to presume Vaux would likely have had insider knowledge (9) of this kind of thing. Despite being credited with producing the very first dictionary ever compiled in Australia, Vaux was a British-born ex-convict who included in his dictionary all those terms he had heard while serving time (10) in penal colonies in Australia in the early 1800s—fake among them.

So we know the word has criminal origins, and presumably dates back to sometime around the late 18th century, but where did it come from? Admittedly, it’s hard to say—not least of all because Vaux’s explanation is so wide-ranging (11) that it gives us little, if any, detail to go on.

Faking, according to Vaux’s definition, could once be taken to mean everything from robbing to murdering, cutting to breaking, pinching to writing, and making something to breaking something. In fact, Vaux was compelled to introduce this entry in his dictionary with the caveat (12) that fake was “a word so variously used, that I can only illustrate it [here] by a few examples.”

Amidst the blizzard of competing definitions, the use of fake to mean “counterfeit” or “artificial” is at least beginning to emerge in Vaux’s explanation, most notably in the expression “to fake your pin,” which meant to feign (13) illness or injury to escape work or military service. It’s this sense of the word that has survived to this day—and it could be this that points us toward where the word might actually have originated.

One theory claims that fake could be related to the German fegen or Dutch vegen, both meaning “to polish,” or “to wipe clean”—the implication being that something might once have been said to have been “faked” when it had been cleaned up to appear more valuable than it actually was.

It’s hard to say which—if any—of these theories is correct without further written evidence, but we can at least be sure that "faking" things is not quite as old as we might think.

Adapted from a story by Paul Anthony, Mental Floss



“buzzwords” (1)
When an item in the language becomes a buzzword, it turns into a trendy, popular, fashionable word or phrase.  It usually starts a part of jargon in a specialised field and then gains a wider currency.  His speech was full of buzzwords and empty promises.

“out and out” (2)
This expression, which means “complete” or “in every aspect,” precedes a noun to emphasise an unpleasant quality: That is an out-and-out fraud. This attributive use is more common than the adverbial function found in the article, which carries the same meaning of “completely,” as in He was persuaded to give in to their requests out and out.

“Flash” (3)
As an adjective, “flash” has several different senses.  In this context, it has the very specific meaning of “relating the language used by thieves, swindlers and criminals.”  This sense is old, no longer frequent, and hasn’t been common since the time of the dictionary that contains the word in its name.

“misreading” (4)
Whenever the prefix “mis-“ is placed next to a verb, it describes the wrong, inaccurate performance of the action expressed by the verb.  In this case, the meaning is “a failure to understand or interpret correctly.” He must have misread my opinion on his work, that’s why he got angry. Other instances of the prefix are “misinterpret,” “misjudge,” “misunderstand,” “misprint,” “mistake,” “misbehave.”

“bogus or counterfeit” (5)
Both “bogus and counterfeit” describe something that is not genuine and is meant to carry deception.  While “bogus” is something that is not real or not legal or untrue, as in His claims were found to be bogus, “counterfeit” is more specific as a fraudulent copy of something valuable, as in counterfeit money / passport / jewels.

“jargon” (6)
Jargon is the language peculiar to a particular field or profession, usually understood by the ones who use it actively and not transparent for others, i.e. military jargon / legal jargon. The use of the word in everyday language may oftentimes have a disapproving nuance, when the intention is to characterize it as obscure and pretentious.

“overhear” (7)
When a person says something that is not meant for you to hear, and it gets to you anyway, two situations may be the case: you may “overhear” it – if you just couldn’t help it, if it is not your intention to get to know and you accidentally hear it; or you “eavesdrop” and get to know, by deliberately deciding to get the information.  In both cases, the speakers never know that a third party has heard them. I couldn’t help overhearing what you just said but I won’t tell anyone, I promise / She was caught eavesdropping behind the door. How dare she!

“scheming” (8)
The act of “scheming” is the act of making clever plans, especially secret ones in order to deceive others. It looks as though everybody were scheming against her nomination. When the word is used as an adjective, the person described in this way is calculating and conceals their true intentions in order to get what they want. The scheming old partner would do anything to get hold of his Chair on the Board again.

“insider knowledge” (9)
A very transparent expression that refers to information known only to people on the “inside,” such as in an organization or a place.  This information is usually not accessible to people who are outsiders in the situation. If you are looking for first-hand information and exclusive insider knowledge, I’ll tell you who to talk to.

“serving time” (10)
When a person “serves time,” they spend a certain amount of time in jail for a crime they were charged with and found guilty of.  The verbal phrase “do time” is equivalent to it. Nobody would give him a job when they got to know he had served time for robbery.

“wide-ranging” (11)
“Wide-ranging” is extensive in scope, comprehensive of many items, or dealing with a large variety of subjects, as for example, a wide-ranging investigation / wide-ranging topics of interest. The combination of an adjective or adverb plus a present participle is quite a frequent collocation. Consider the following items: long-lasting, far-reaching, long-standing, ever-lasting, never-ending, all-encompassing.

“caveat” (12)
When a statement contains a caveat, it includes a warning, a cautionary detail including conditions or limitations that should be taken into account when interpreting such statement and before taking any more action. He agreed to take on the task, with the caveat that he could make flexible use of his time.

“feign” (13)
If you feign a feeling or an attitude or a situation, you represent it fictitiously; you pretend such situation is the case in order that people think it is true. She feigned she was not feeling well in order to leave earlier.



Honesty is such a lonely word

That’s how the lyrics went in a very romantic song in the seventies. The line seems truer than ever. No wonder, then, that “fake” is the biggest buzzword in current times.

When you cannot “take anything at its face value,” for instance, you cannot assume it is genuinely what it appears to be. You know you cannot take news at face value, since there are so many alternative depictions of reality. Every now and then, you come across people who “stretch the truth,” i.e. exaggerate the facts or say things that are not exactly true. Do not stretch the truth at a job interview; sooner or later you’ll be put to the test. There are also people who “lie through their teeth,” i.e. lie openly, knowing that what they are saying is completely false. I saw him take the test from the drawer. He’s lying through his teeth if he keeps denying it. There’s many, too, who use “smoke and mirrors,” in an attempt to conceal or distort the truth in order to confuse people. The report proved to be all smoke and mirrors; they’ll continue the investigation with other sources now. These people will “lead you up the garden path,” i.e. deceive you by making you believe something which is not true. Several nutrition “experts” lead people up the garden path with strange diets and promises of fast weight loss. The repeated instances of cases like these are the ones which make words like “fake” extremely frequent.

Those who, on the other hand, do things “fair and square” – in an honest and open manner – respect the rules, do not cheat or lie. Because he cannot win fair and square, he’s just changing the rules! At the other end of the spectrum, you find those people who are “straight as an arrow,” i.e. morally right and extremely honest. He was as straight as an arrow and he wouldn’t promote himself.

As we very well know, the frequency of the words and expressions that describe things in the real world depend on how often we need to refer to their real life counterpart. So, there it is. Thanks to human activity, which is oftentimes deceitful and deceiving, “fake” has become a buzzword. It’s up to us all to change its frequency in the language. And, in the meantime, it is invaluable to have our toolbox well stocked with expressions and synonyms that point to the right buzzword of the time.



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