The real history of what is ‘fake’

President Donald Trump addresses the Conservative Political Action Conference Friday in Oxon Hill, Md. At the event, he made comments about “the fake news media or press.”
President Donald Trump addresses the Conservative Political Action Conference Friday in Oxon Hill, Md. At the event, he made comments about “the fake news media or press.”

When calling BS, “fake” is our favorite four-letter word — especially when it comes to denouncing bogus news.

The term came to prominence during the 2016 presidential campaign as a word for fraudulent journalism, but President Trump has shifted the meaning and kept the term in circulation thanks to tweets labeling The New York Times, CNN, and all three major networks as fake news. He doubled down on this characterization at CPAC last week: “I am only against the fake news media or press.”

The little but powerful word “fake” is common and trendy, but it also has a deep history with roots in the language of crime: That lexical rap sheet may be part of why fake is still so damning and useful.


The roots of “fake” come from the language of criminal beggars in the early 1800s: At that time, “fake” was far more versatile than today. Faking someone could involve robbing, stabbing, or killing them. It was a flexible word that could mean just about anything done to a dupe or other victim. Eventually, the deceptive meaning took over, and the word settled into a familiar meaning seen in Henry Mayhew’s 1851 book “London Labour and the London Poor,” which describes a ring “made out of brass gilt buttons” as “faked up.”

Get Arguable in your inbox:
Jeff Jacoby on everything from politics to pet peeves to the passions of the day.
Thank you for signing up! Sign up for more newsletters here

“Green’s Dictionary of Slang” records a remarkable number of expressions beginning with “fake,” most of which have the common denominator of deception. A “fake bandager” is a beggar pretending to be hobbled to garner sympathy and donations. To “fake the duck” is to slip someone a mickey, while “faking your slangs” is to escape from restraints so as to flee (probably from the cops). “Faking a pin” isn’t for the faint of heart: It involves injuring your own leg to get out of military service. “Faking a poke” is easier, if you’re quick with your hands: It means picking a pocket.

The editor of the slang dictionary, Jonathon Green, says that the criminal past of “fake” is likely “unconscious” at this point, and “fake” is mostly a synonym for “phony,” a word with some amusing reduplicative variations such as “phony baloney” and “phonus balonus.” But even “phony” has a more depraved background than you’d think from current uses. Phony likely derived from “fawney,” a type of ring used in cons. A fawney was cheap but looked expensive, and the flim-flam man would drop it in front of a mark, who would be offered the impressive-looking ring at an irresistible price. The earliest examples with the spelling “phony” (or phoney) are equally illicit, referring to counterfeit betting slips sold to dupes: Those slips were a gamble that would never pay off.

Michael Adams, Indiana University professor and author of “In Praise of Profanity” as well as several other books about words, said in an e-mail, “Fake is such a modern word . . . it’s not part of everyday conversation until there are democracies and newspapers, that is, until people needed to observe and evaluate people and events from a distance and could do so. We had to figure out what was real and what was fake and that made fake useful.”

Adams added that fake has some structural advantages that have enhanced its success: “Because of its sound shape, fake is an insistent word, a no-nonsense word. It’s also a one-syllable word, and those two qualities together make it ideal for compounding fake news. Think of the alternatives: fraudulent news, deliberately inaccurate news. . . ” Even phony news wouldn’t have the same punch.


As a word, “fake” has power, but it doesn’t have a lot of specificity. It’s hard to know whether fake news is phony because of its bias, incompetence, propaganda, kookiness, malarkey, or lies — or just because the person hurling the term doesn’t like the news in question. With such a fast spread and faster broadening, “fake news” has become old news that’s kind of meaningless. Instead of using this vague label, you’d do better either using more specific language or sticking your fingers in your ears while shouting “lalalalalala.”

Mark Peters, the Ideas language writer, is the author of the “Bull[expletive]: A Lexicon” from Three Rivers Press. Follow him on Twitter @wordlust.