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

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It’s probably fair to say that fake is fast becoming one of the biggest buzzwords 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, 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 overtight, he will complain that his shoe fakes his foot sadly; it also describes the doing of any act, or the fabricating any thing, 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, with an axe, etc., in hopes to obtain a discharge from the army or navy, to get into the doctor’s list, etc.; to fake a screeve, is to write a letter, or other paper; to fake a screw, is to shape out a skeleton or false key, for the purpose of screwing a particular place; to fake a cly, is to pick a pocket; etc., etc., etc.”

That’s an extract from A New and Comprehensive Vocabulary of the Flash 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 of false, and so can’t be guaranteed. Fake is also a naval term used to describe coiled rope that appears to be older, but that’s considered unrelated. So we’re not dealing with some long-established Anglo-Saxonism here. Instead, fake, in the sense of something being bogus or counterfeit, 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 used by criminals to keep their activities a secret from the authorities, their victims, or anyone else who happened to overhear their scheming. 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 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 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 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 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 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. If that’s the case, then fake might be related to a dialect term feak or fyke, meaning “to twitch or move quickly,” or else feague, an 18th-century slang word meaning “to put ginger or a live eel up a horse’s anus to make it appear more sprightly.” (No, really.) Alternatively, fake might derive from fac, a derivative of the Latin verb facio, which literally means to “make” or “do.” This more general explanation is less imaginative, but might at least account for the word’s array of different meanings in Vaux’s dictionary.

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.

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Of Buckeyes and Butternuts: 29 States With Weird Nicknames for Their Residents
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Tracing a word’s origin and evolution can yield fascinating historical insights—and the weird nicknames used in some states to describe their residents are no exception. In the Mental Floss video above, host John Green explains the probable etymologies of 29 monikers that describe inhabitants of certain states across the country.

Some of these nicknames, like “Hoosiers” and “Arkies” (which denote residents of Indiana and Arkansas, respectively) may have slightly offensive connotations, while others—including "Buckeyes," "Jayhawks," "Butternuts," and "Tar Heels"—evoke the military histories of Ohio, Kansas, Tennessee, and North Carolina. And a few, like “Muskrats” and “Sourdoughs,” are even inspired by early foods eaten in Delaware and Alaska. ("Goober-grabber" sounds goofier, but it at least refers to peanuts, which are a common crop in Georgia, as well as North Carolina and Arkansas.)

Learn more fascinating facts about states' nicknames for their residents by watching the video above.

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Rebecca O'Connell
What's the Longest Word in the World? Here are 12 of Them, By Category
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Rebecca O'Connell

Antidisestablishmentarianism, everyone’s favorite agglutinative, entered the pop culture lexicon on August 17, 1955, when Gloria Lockerman, a 12-year-old girl from Baltimore, correctly spelled it on The $64,000 Question as millions of people watched from their living rooms. At 28 letters, the word—which is defined as a 19th-century British political movement that opposes proposals for the disestablishment of the Church of England—is still regarded as the longest non-medical, non-coined, nontechnical word in the English language, yet it keeps some robust company. Here are some examples of the longest words by category.


Note the ellipses. All told, the full chemical name for the human protein titin is 189,819 letters, and takes about three-and-a-half hours to pronounce. The problem with including chemical names is that there’s essentially no limit to how long they can be. For example, naming a single strand of DNA, with its millions and millions of repeating base pairs, could eventually tab out at well over 1 billion letters.


The longest word ever to appear in literature comes from Aristophanes’ play, Assemblywomen, published in 391 BC. The Greek word tallies 171 letters, but translates to 183 in English. This mouthful refers to a fictional fricassee comprised of rotted dogfish head, wrasse, wood pigeon, and the roasted head of a dabchick, among other culinary morsels. 


At 45 letters, this is the longest word you’ll find in a major dictionary. An inflated version of silicosis, this is the full scientific name for a disease that causes inflammation in the lungs owing to the inhalation of very fine silica dust. Despite its inclusion in the dictionary, it’s generally considered superfluous, having been coined simply to claim the title of the longest English word.


The longest accepted binomial construction, at 42 letters, is a species of soldier fly native to Thailand. With a lifespan of five to eight days, it’s unlikely one has ever survived long enough to hear it pronounced correctly.


This 30-letter thyroid disorder is the longest non-coined word to appear in a major dictionary.


By virtue of having one more letter than antidisestablishmentarianism, this is the longest non-technical English word. A mash-up of five Latin roots, it refers to the act of describing something as having little or no value. While it made the cut in the Oxford English Dictionary, Merriam-Webster volumes refuse to recognize it, chalking up its existence to little more than linguistic ephemera.


At 17 characters, this is the longest accepted isogram, a word in which every letter is used only once, and refers to the underlying dermal matrix that determines the pattern formed by the whorls, arches, and ridges of our fingerprints. 


Though the more commonly accepted American English version carries only one L, both Oxford and Merriam-Webster dictionaries recognize this alternate spelling and condone its one syllable pronunciation (think “world”), making it the longest non-coined monosyllabic English word at 11 letters.


One who doesn’t indulge in excesses, especially food and drink; at 11 letters this is the longest word to use all five vowels in order exactly once.


A type of soil tiller, the longest non-coined palindromic word included in an English dictionary tallies nine letters. Detartrated, 11 letters, appears in some chemical glossaries, but is generally considered too arcane to qualify.

11. and 12. CWTCH, EUOUAE

The longest words to appear in a major dictionary comprised entirely of either vowels or consonants. A Cwtch, or crwth, is from the Welsh word for a hiding place. Euouae, a medieval musical term, is technically a mnemonic, but has been accepted as a word in itself. 


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