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The oddest English spellings, part 21: Phony from top to bottom

By Anatoly Liberman


I have written more than once that the only hope to reform English spelling would be by doing it piecemeal, that is, by nibbling away at a comfortable pace. Unfortunately, reformers used to attack words like have and give and presented hav and giv to the irate public. This was too radical a measure; bushes exist for beating about them. Several chunks of orthographic fat are crying to be cut off. One of them is the digraph ph. Dictionaries still cite phantasy and fantasy as admissible variants, but hardly anyone feels offended by fantasy, and probably no one is so steeped in classical scholarship as to advocate the spelling phantastic. (For more than a century there has been no progress in the movement of spelling reformers, but certain things should be said again and again for the record, even if they fall on deaf ears; “one doesn’t always fight to win.”)

Along with so many other learned spellings, ph appeared in English during the Renaissance. The digraph made sense (I am not saying “was needed”; it just made sense) in Greek words like orphan and physician and perhaps in names like Philip. But the scribes of that epoch inherited from their medieval predecessors the pernicious belief that the more letters one wrote in a word, the more the reader would be impressed. The easiest trick was to double consonants (and they doubled like a house on fire), but ph served their purpose too. So turph ‘turf’ and other monsters began to embellish manuscripts and books. The emergence of ph, apart from complicating spelling, introduced a good deal of confusion. For example, Anglo-French Estevene became Stephen (Greek Stephanos), while the shorter form and the family name (Steve, Stevenson) have v. However, don’t expect logic from English; Stephanie is spelled with ph and pronounced accordingly.

The history of nephew, with its puzzling ph, is full of adventures. Old English had the kin term nefa, a cognate of Latin nepos, which denoted “grandson; descendant.” Nefa too exhibited a broad spectrum of senses: “nephew; grandson; stepson; second cousin” (all of them united by the idea “less close than a son”). Nepos is the etymon of the corresponding words in the Romance group, including French. Middle English borrowed Old French neveu, though it could very well do with the native term, as happened in the other Germanic languages. Nefa continued into the sixteenth century (neve) and then disappeared. Nephew is a modern reflex of neveu, which, as can be seen, did not have either f or ph. The same holds for its Greek cognate anepsiós. We are at a loss to explain why scribes replaced v with ph in what eventually became nephew. Did this outburst of scholarly enthusiasm have a phonetic base? Despite the spelling, most people evidently pronounced nephew with v, so that in “Bev, you heard it, has a nephew” the italicized words made a perfect rhyme; this variant is still the most common one in British English.

According to the nearly universal opinion, f in nephew owes its existence to spelling. “Nefew” people would rhyme “Chef, you heard it, has a nephew.” However, the situation is far from clear. The example of original v being rendered by ph is unique. Phial and vial are etymological doublets, but then they are pronounced differently. The variation f ~ v in French words is extremely rare. In the eighteenth century some people pronounced prophecy as provecy, but in nephew v is primary, while in prophecy it is f. Also, f in nephew occurs in some British dialects, where the influence of book culture would be hard to expect. Additionally, most speakers of American English rhyme nephew with chef you, not with Bev you. This pronunciation was recorded in England in 1777, but it may have existed considerably earlier.

Since I teach linguistic courses, I regularly use the word diphthong. It takes me quite some time to explain the difference between monophthongs and diphthongs, because today’s students have no exposure to the basic concepts of phonetics (the spellchecker in my computer does not even recognize the word monophthong) and because the pronunciation of diphthongs varies from area to area. For example, in the Midwest we work from nine to five, in the south of the country they toil from nahn to fahv, and in London, Cambridge, and in many other parts of the United Kingdom one is kept busy from noin to foiv. Be that as it may, lie, lay, loud, low, and ploy are supposed to be pronounced with dipthongs. Once my students succeed in storing up this piece of valuable information, a losing battle begins against the pronunciation diphthong. The same substitution of p for f before th occurs in diphtheria, but I seldom hear that word and know about its phth problem only from books. The pronunciation dipthong was also known in England at the end of the eighteenth century, but French dipthongue testifies to the old age of the “substandard” variant in English. For comparison, check your pronunciation of phthisis, naphtha ~ naptha, and ophthalmologist. In Greek diphthoggós, di-, from dis-, means “twice,” and phthoggós, pronounced as phthongós, means “voice”; hence a sound consisting of two parts.

The Big Phony

To be sure, most English words beginning with ph- are of Greek origin or reached English via Greek (like Pharisee), but consider the interjections phew (spelled so, to avoid confusion with few?), phit, and phut in go phut “go bust” (phut, a twin of phit, is a loan from Hindustani; thus, Anglo-Indian). Supposedly, in words like phew ph designates the voiced partner of w, but does it? English borrowed fantasy ~ phantasy from Old French, where it was spelled with initial -f, though its ancestor was Latin phantasia (from Greek). The modern Romance languages also have f- (French fantasie, Italian fantasia), but Engl. fancy, a contraction of fantasy, has always been spelled with f-. In telephone, a late word in which one might risk deviating from the spelling of its ancient etymon, only Italian boldly (and wisely) chose the form telefone, while French and Spanish stick to ph. In the Germanic group, the Scandinavian languages, Dutch, and Frisian have abolished ph (except in some foreign proper names). By contrast, German has Phonetik “phonetics,” but Telefon. “All things considered,” the digraph ph is absolutely useless, and no one will weep if it goes away.

Perhaps the height of absurdity is the spelling of the English adjective phony ~ phoney, popularized at the beginning of the twentieth century. Its source remains a matter of dispute. Most etymologists derive it from the cant word fawney “gilt ring,” ultimately from Irish. But there are other conjectures. Whatever the origin of this adjective, it did not come to English from Classical Greek, so why ph-? By association with phone?

Linguists make wide use of the concept of iconicity. The term refers to situations in which a word’s form corresponds to its meaning. For instance, longer is the comparative degree of long, and the word longer is indeed longer than long. Or you hear the verb crack, and its sound shape makes you think of cracking. Phoney illustrates the triumph of the iconic principle. The word means “false, counterfeit” and its spelling is phoney. It suggests Greek origin, but the suggestion is a hoax.

Anatoly Liberman is the author of Word Origins…And How We Know Them as well as An Analytic Dictionary of English Etymology: An Introduction. His column on word origins, The Oxford Etymologist, appears here, each Wednesday. Send your etymology question to him care of blog@oup.com; he’ll do his best to avoid responding with “origin unknown.”

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11 Responses to “The oddest English spellings, part 21: Phony from top to bottom”
  1. Tom says:

    I doubt that nephew [nev-you] is (still) the most common pronunciation of the word in British English. It seems to be rather uncommon in fact.

  2. OED has phoney (adj. and n.) from 1893. An 1890 (April 4) article in the Plain Dealer [Detroit] tells a joke that obscures any potential relevance for etymology (other than providing an antedating for awareness of the word), but associates the word, as you questioned, with phone.
    QUITE “PHONEY”
    He Wrote the Name of Agnes in the Sky.
    Minnie Worley, aged 22, Telephone Exchange operator at South Bend, and Frank Middleton, aged 25, in a like position at Michigan City, became acquainted during their night watches. Finally Middleton proposed in fun that they get married by telephone, and Minnie consented. A Michigan City justice was called in and performed a legal ceremony, but without the necessary state license. It was passed off a quite a ‘phoney’ joke; but it grows serious, when eminent legal council pronounce it valid and that Justice Dibble who performed the ceremony is liable to imprisonment for doing so without necessary license….

  3. Barbara says:

    Phantastic post!
    Thank you

  4. aka Darrell says:

    Explain how Filipino and Philippines fit into all this.

  5. Craig says:

    I think Spanish uses the form “teléfono,” and with spelling reforms in Castilian Spanish could not imagine such a late word taking a “ph” spelling. Perhaps another reader more fluent in Spanish has an example of a greek-derived word still popularly using a “ph” for “f” graph in the language?

  6. Simón says:

    Very interesting post! I would like to contribute with a little remark: telephone is written in Spanish nowadays with f (teléfono, as you can check in the oficial Spanish dictionary: http://buscon.rae.es/drae/cgi-bin/aviso.cgi?url=SrvltGUIBusUsual&TIPO_HTML=2&TIPO_BUS=3&LEMA=tel%25C3%25A9fono), and it has officially done so since 1754 when the Real Academia de la Lengua Española suppressed the graph “ph” for “f” sound as you can check on Wikipedia’s article on Spanish Orthography: http://es.wikipedia.org/wiki/Ortograf%C3%ADa_del_espa%C3%B1ol#Historia.

    Anyway, thanks for your so interesting posting! :)

  7. Stephen, your 1890 example of “phoney” seems to me to be an attempt at a poor pun on “funny/[tele]phone[y]” rather than anything to do with the word “phoney” meaning “fake”.

  8. Veronica says:

    In one part of the country people will say they work nine while five.

  9. Masha Bell says:

    I have just seen that the arrow symbols I used around graphemes in my comment yesterday have not shown up, along with the graphemes they were enclosing and the whole thing has become incomprehensible. I am therefore reposting with amendments and one additional sentence.

    Improving English spelling by little nibbles could make learning to read and write the language substantially easier – if English spelling was not quite so quirky. But as at least 3700 ordinary words contain one or more unpredictable letters (one, two; Monday, Tuesday; enough, said, friend…), minor changes would take centuries to make a noticeable difference to learners, or even to compensate for modernisms which keep making matters worse (ski, graffiti – hi!).

    Because there is now so much wrong with English spelling, even deciding what to change first is more difficult than with orthographies which have been regularly modernised. It’s a bit like looking at a severely damaged old building and deciding where to start, when complete demolition is not an option.

    Abolishing the use of ‘ph’ for the /f/ sound would not help learners much,
    a) because the pronunciation of ‘ph’ is regular and
    b) because ‘ph’ is used in only 35 relatively common words
    (phantom, pharaoh, phase, pheasant, phenomenon, philosophy, physics, physiological, phone, photograph, phrase; graph, Joseph, nymph, triumph; alphabet, amphibian, asphyxiate, apostrophe, catastrophe, cellophane, decipher, dolphin, elephant, emphasise, nephew, orphan, pamphlet, prophet, sapphire, siphon, sophisticated, sphere, symphony, trophy, typhoon).

    The use of redundant ‘-e’ endings is only sometimes unpredictable in writing (determine, famine – aspirin, boffin; promise, premise – basis, tennis), although mostly not after ‘-v’ (have, subversive) and in longer words after ‘-at’(fortunate), but it makes learning to read much harder. It makes it less immediately obvious when ‘-e’ lengthens a preceding vowel (have – gave; to advocate – an advocate; define – famine).

    The pamphleteers of the English Civil War 1642-49 removed most surplus ‘-e’ endings (olde, worlde, worke), often together with doubled consonants (hadde, fisshe, shoppe), because they wanted to squeeze more information onto a page. Perhaps texting will do the same for the remaining ones? We would quickly stop missing them.

    To make English literacy acquisition noticeably faster and easier, however, would require tackling some of the really big time-wasters, like inconsistent consonant doubling (shoddy body … ballad salad … very merry) or the numerous unpredictable spellings for the /ee/ sound (speak, seek, seize, siege, scene, suite, ski). They cause an enormous amount of word-by-word memorisation of spellings and make learning to read more difficult too. Compared to them, ‘ph’ impedes literacy progress hardly at all.

    Substituting ‘f’ for ‘ph’, as happened in the last German reform, is easily doable, given the will. It would just not make a big difference to the overall difficulties or the long time of learning to read and write English.

    The Overview page at http://www.EnglishSpellingProblems.co.uk shows how many out of the 6800 most frequently used English words use the main English graphemes, such as ‘f’ for the /f/ sound, and how many have alternative spellings like ‘ph’.

  10. [...] days before been reading on the OUP blog about that very issue, in a lovely piece that you can read here by Anatoly Liberman.  This article makes clear that the “p” pronunciation is [...]

  11. [...] could be expected, my recent post on spelling reform inspired many questions. This part of the “gleanings” will deal only with [...]

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