Wednesday, June 05, 2013

Wondering about words

click photo to enlarge
In a newspaper article I was reading the other day the journalist used the word "phoney" meaning false. Not unusual you might think, but it was a British journalist and I always understood phoney to be a U.S. word. That in itself isn't so unusual because English words travel both ways across the Atlantic to take up permanent residence each of the two main variants of English. However, it did prompt me to look up the word "phoney" in my Oxford English Dictionary (OED). It reported, unhelpfully, "Of uncertain origin", though it did note the word's origins in the United States. It was then, as sometimes happens, that a dim light came on in the recesses of my brain and I recalled the word "fawney". This word, I remembered, was British eighteenth century slang for "fake". A gilt ring being passed off as real gold was often described as fawney. Undoubtedly, I thought, there is a connection. And sure enough the web produced several references to the origins of U.S. phoney in British fawney. Can the OED, I wonder, verify this? For all I know it has already done so; after all my edition, like me, is getting on a bit.

The derivations of words popped into my head again as I was processing this photograph of dried Physalis franchetii that had been cleverly and effectively placed in the fireplace of a room in an old museum. The colloquial name for this plant is Chinese Lanterns after the similarity between the dried flowers and the Asiatic paper lanterns. It then occurred to me that there was a further interesting word that could be applied to the flowers when arranged in a fireplace - "flamboyant". Today this word usually means showy, colourful or florid, and wouldn't necessarily be thought especially applicable to this photograph. However, it derives from the French word for "flame" and originally meant flame-like in either shape or colour. Architectural historians use the word in this way, describing the flame-like tracery of Gothic windows as being in the Flamboyant Style. In the nineteenth century, both in Britain and the United States, the word was applied to things that had the colour of flames too. Consequently, it seemed to me unusual, but not unreasonable, to describe today's photograph with the words I chose.

photograph and text © Tony Boughen

Camera: Canon
Mode: Aperture Priority
Focal Length: 28mm
F No: f8
Shutter Speed: 1/30 sec
ISO: 1600
Exposure Compensation: -1.0 EV
Image Stabilisation: On