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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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Big Questions
What’s the Origin of Jack-O’-Lanterns?
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The term "jack-o'-lantern" was first applied to people, not pumpkins. As far back as 1663, the term meant a man with a lantern, or a night watchman. Just a decade or so later, it began to be used to refer to the mysterious lights sometimes seen at night over bogs, swamps, and marshes.

These ghost lights—variously called  jack-o’-lanterns, hinkypunks, hobby lanterns, corpse candles, fairy lights, will-o'-the-wisps, and fool's fire—are created when gases from decomposing plant matter ignite as they come into contact with electricity or heat or as they oxidize. For centuries before this scientific explanation was known, people told stories to explain the mysterious lights. In Ireland, dating as far back as the 1500s, those stories often revolved around a guy named Jack.

LEGEND HAS IT

As the story goes, Stingy Jack—often described as a blacksmith—invited the devil to join him for a drink. Stingy Jack didn't want to pay for the drinks from his own pocket, and convinced the devil to turn himself into a coin that could be used to settle the tab. The devil did so, but Jack skipped out on the bill and kept the devil-coin in his pocket with a silver cross so that the devil couldn’t shift back to his original form. Jack eventually let the devil loose, but made him promise that he wouldn’t seek revenge on Jack, and wouldn’t claim his soul when he died.

Later, Jack irked the devil again by convincing him to climb up a tree to pick some fruit, then carved a cross in the trunk so that the devil couldn’t climb back down (apparently, the devil is a sucker). Jack freed him again, on the condition that the devil once again not take revenge and not claim Jack’s soul.

When Stingy Jack eventually died, God would not allow him into heaven, and the devil, keeping his word, rejected Jack’s soul at the gates of hell. Instead, the devil gave him a single burning coal to light his way and sent him off into the night to “find his own hell.” Jack put the coal into a carved-out turnip and has supposedly been roaming the earth with it ever since. In Ireland, the ghost lights seen in the swamps were said to be Jack’s improvised lantern moving about as his restless soul wandered the countryside. He and the lights were dubbed "Jack of the Lantern," or "Jack O'Lantern."

OLD TALE, NEW TRADITIONS

The legend immigrated to the new world with the Irish, and it collided with another old world tradition and a new world crop. Making vegetable lanterns was a tradition of the British Isles, and carved-out turnips, beets, and potatoes were stuffed with coal, wood embers, or candles as impromptu lanterns to celebrate the fall harvest. As a prank, kids would sometimes wander off the road with a glowing veggie to trick their friends and travelers into thinking they were Stingy Jack or another lost soul. In America, pumpkins were easy enough to come by and good for carving, and got absorbed both into the carved lantern tradition and the associated prank. Over time, kids refined the prank and began carving crude faces into the pumpkins to kick up the fright factor and make the lanterns look like disembodied heads. By the mid-1800s, Stingy Jack’s nickname was applied to the prank pumpkin lanterns that echoed his own lamp, and the pumpkin jack-o’-lantern got its name.

Toward the end of the 19th century, jack-o’-lanterns went from just a trick to a standard seasonal decoration, including at a high-profile 1892 Halloween party hosted by the mayor of Atlanta. In one of the earliest instances of the jack-o’-lantern as Halloween decor, the mayor’s wife had several pumpkins—lit from within and carved with faces—placed around the party, ending Jack O’Lantern’s days of wandering, and beginning his yearly reign over America’s windowsills and front porches.

Have you got a Big Question you'd like us to answer? If so, let us know by emailing us at bigquestions@mentalfloss.com.

 

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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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