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A fake etymology of the word “fake,” with deep thoughts on “Fagin” and other names in Dickens

I do not know the etymology of fake, and no one knows, but, since the phrase fake news is in everybody’s mouth, I am constantly asked where the word fake came from. I’ll now say what I can about this subject, in order to be able to refer to this post in the future and from now on live in peace.

This is a fakir. The word fakir has nothing to do with fake!

One certain thing about fake, noun and verb, is its extremely late attestation in books. We may disregard fake “one of the circles or windings of a cable or hawser, as it lies disposed in a coil,” for which the OED has no post-1867 citations and which seems to be a mere homonym of the word we are interested in. That nautical term was first recorded in 1627. “Our” fake, it appears, was borrowed from thieves’ language (“cant”), passed from low slang to colloquial English, and finally became fully respectable despite its unattractive meaning. In the OED’s database, no citations of fake “to do, to do for; plunder; kill; tamper with, for the purpose of deception, etc.” predate 1819. The noun (“an act of faking”) surfaced in 1827, but, surprisingly, fake “spurious, counterfeit” turned up in 1775, in Canadian Archives, to lie dormant until 1890.

Forecast: clear skies. Fake news.

Probably fake, noun, verb, and adjective, began to circulate in the London underworld around the middle of the eighteenth century. Thieves became global before the rest of us, and their words are often international. The Low German or Dutch origin of fake has often been proposed. But later etymologists stayed away from fake, and, when they featured it, hastened to inform the users that the sought-after origin is unknown. Even the intrepid Hensleigh Wedgwood ignored it. Curiously, Walter W. Skeat, who wrote about fake several times, did not honor it in his dictionary. He might have felt uneasy about his own hypothesis, though he stated it elsewhere several times and in most forceful terms. Faker, as I understand, was the cant term for a follower of any occupation, nefarious or otherwise. For instance, chimney sweepers were called fakers. The civilized world probably learned the ignominious verb from Oliver Twist, where a pickpocket is called cly-faker. Cly means “pocket.” Skeat traced this word to Dutch kleed “garment,” related to Engl. cloth, and believed that it had originally meant any article of clothing. The Artful Dodger and other Fagan’s “boys” were taught to fake a cly.

I’ll reproduce Skeat’s earliest note on the subject (his abbreviations will be expanded): “Fake, to steal. This is a well-known cant word, to be found in the Slang Dictionary [Francis Grose, A Classical Dictionary of the Vulgar Tongue, 1785]. Like several other such words, it is probably Dutch. It corresponds to Middle Dutch fecken, ‘to catch, or to gripe,’ recorded by Hexham [Henry D. M. Hexham, A Copious English and Netherdutch Dictionary, 1675]. Curiously enough, this verb answers precisely to the Anglo-Saxon [= Old English] facian, to try to acquire, to wish to get, a word employed by King Alfred. The verb originally meant ‘to enclose,’ and is closely connected with Dutch vak, Anglo-Saxon fæc, German Fach, a word of rather widely extended meaning. The German Fach means ‘partition, compartment, department;’ the Old High German fah has the older sense of ‘enclosure, wall;’ the Anglo-Saxon fæc means ‘a space, interval.’’’ (Old Engl. æ had the value of a in the modern word fat.) The Dutch origin of fake is not improbable, but the rest of Skeat’s etymology does not look sufficiently persuasive.

Two things complicate the search for the origin of fake. First, the extremely vague meaning of the verb (just “do”); feikment has been recorded with the sense “thingummy, thingamajig,” so not an exact synonym for fakement “something faked (“done”).” Another complication is the existence of several look-alikes. The closest neighbor of fake is the obsolete verb feague, which meant “to beat, whip” and also “do for; settle the business of”; that is, almost the same as fake. Long before Skeat, Nathan Bailey, once an extremely popular lexicographer, derived feague from German fegen “polish, sweep”; Dutch vegen means the same. Skeat (as was his wont) once railed against an amateur who looked on feague as the etymon of fake, and, indeed, the sound change from g to k is quite unlikely. But we needn’t derive one verb from the other. Ours is a case of interlock, interlace, or (for word lovers) interdigitations.

I once dealt with the etymology of our F-word. All over the Germanic-speaking world, we find fik– ~ fak- ~ fuk- verbs meaning “to move back and forth” and “cheat.” I concluded that the English verb was a borrowing from Low German. Fake and feague are also possible loans (borrowed words, it will be observed, are always on permanent loan) from the same area. They probably meant “go ahead, move; act, do,” with all kinds of specialization, from “darn (a stocking),” to “cheat,” to “copulate.” Once they were appropriated by thieves, “go ahead, do,” naturally, became “deceive; steal, etc.” Since they sounded alike, they might, even must have influenced one another. I will risk suggesting that fake is part of the f-k family. Naturally, in Cockney, it was and is pronounced as fike. Those who adopted the verb knew the rules of the Cockney vowel shift, and, just as we today, when instructed “to chinge trines at foiv o’clock at the nearest stition,” understand our London interlocutor, knew perfectly well that fike meant fake and recorded it accordingly.

Now a few thoughts of mild profundity on Fagin’s name may be in order. (Fagin’s associates, naturally, said Figin.) It is known that in his youth Dickens worked with a Bob Fagin and was on good terms with him. The often-repeated idea that he later bestowed that man’s name on one of his most repulsive characters, to take revenge on a Jew who had dared to patronize him looks strained. Incidentally, Dickens always denied accusations of anti-Semitism. The other conjectures (of which there are not many) do not merit discussion. In my etymological dictionary (at fag), I suggested that, since Oliver was the thieves’ fag (“servant,” the sense universally known from British public schools), his role suggested the name of the fence, which automatically made Fagin Jewish. However, as Dickens noted, London fences were or had often been Jews.

The artful Dodger has just faked a cly.

Perhaps my idea was not hopelessly far-fetched, but I now think that Fagin could also come from another source. Fagin was the teacher of fakers ~ faikers (feagers?), so that his name fit him perfectly. We will never know what made Dickens choose his characters’ names. Some of them are unusual, to put it mildly. Consider Pickwick, Copperfield, Chuzzlewit, and Pecksniff, among others. Peggotty surprised and irritated Miss Betsey Trotwood, who, too, had a rather extraordinary family name. Was it bestowed on her because she took care of a child, and trot, in slang, meant “young animal”? Was that the reason she called him Trot? (The boy grew up in a trot-wood, as it were.)

But to return to fake. It is a possible borrowing by London criminals of a piece of theives’ international argot, originally German or Dutch. Perhaps it once had the vague sense “to go ahead; move.” The amazing thing is not its putative origin but its adoption by the “cultured class.” A low word, a low thing.

Image credits: Featured image and (1) Untitled by ludovic, CC BY-SA 2.0 via Flickr. (2) “rain” by 陳 冠宇, CC BY 2.0 via Flickr. (3) “Mr Brownlow at the bookstall” by George Cruikshank, Public Domain via Wikimedia Commons.

Recent Comments

  1. Stephen Goranson

    Rookwood, an 1834 novel by William Harrison Ainsworth, uses “fake” more than twenty times (vol. 2, p.344-6):
    https://babel.hathitrust.org/cgi/pt?id=uiuo.ark:/13960/t4gm8wk4s;view=1up;seq=362

  2. carol walshe

    Not a descendant, via vulgar Latin, of facere?

  3. Nigel Middlemiss

    I concluded long ago that the F-word derived from or was cognate with “fac”, meaning to do, which has in fact nothing to do (!) with German or Dutch, but derives straight from the Latin for do: facio, facere, feci, factum. Likewise now, obviously, fake.

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