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

iStock / iStock

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.