How fake is a fakir?

Q: I tremble as I step on the tracks of the linguist Mark Liberman, whom you cite in your “nor’easter” post, but “faker” as an adjective of degree just doesn’t sound right to me. And it’s not in the dictionary built into my computer.

A: We don’t see anything wrong with using “faker” as the comparative form of the adjective “fake,” and the spell-checker in our computer doesn’t either.

A bit of googling finds quite a few examples of the usage, such as “faker than the dinosaurs in Jurassic Park” and “faker than a Louis Vuitton bag on Canal Street.”

Is “faker” standard English? Well, most standard dictionaries don’t include the comparative and superlative forms of adjectives.

One that does, The American Heritage Dictionary of the English Language (5th ed.) doesn’t include “faker” and “fakest” within its entry for “fake.” The lexicographers at American Heritage apparently agree with you.

However, we don’t see why “faker” is any less legitimate than “phonier,” a comparative adjective that’s included in the dictionary.

People have been using the suffix “-er” to form comparative adjectives since Middle English, according to the Oxford English Dictionary. In Old English, the comparative suffix was “-ra” or “-re.”

And writers have often stuck “-er” on adjectives to form unusual comparatives for literary effect, as Lewis Carroll did with “curiouser and curiouser.”

As we’ve said, we think the use of “faker” in our “nor’easter” post is legit, though some lexicographers might describe it as informal.

We quote Liberman, who grew up in southern New England,  as saying “nor’easter” seems “faker to me than the lederhosen at the Biergarten in Walt Disney World.”

By the way, Liberman wrote an interesting item on the Language Log about whether the use of “fakir” in the sense of “faker” is an error or a shift in the meaning of the term.

The OED says English borrowed “fakir” in the early 1600s from faqīr, Arabic for a “poor, poor man.”

The dictionary, citing Sir Henry Yule, a 19th-century Orientalist, defines the term this way: “Properly an indigent person, but specially applied to a Mahommedan religious mendicant, and then loosely, and inaccurately, to Hindu devotees and naked ascetics.”

The earliest OED citation is from A True Historicall Discourse of Muley Hamets Rising to the Three Kingdomes of Moruecos, Fes, and Sus, a 1609 work of questionable authorship: “Fokers, are men of good life, which are onely given to peace.”

The dictionary’s earliest example of the term used in the sense of “faker” is from Buckboard Days, an 1882 book by Sophie A. Poe about pioneer life: “Thieves, Thugs, Fakirs and Bunkco-Steerers.”

The most recent Oxford example of the usage is from Devil Take the Hindmost: A Year of the Slump (1932), by Edmund Wilson: “Some listen to a patent-medicine fakir.”

The OED describes this newer sense as erroneous. Liberman, though, says it may have begun life as an eggcorn, the misinterpretation of one term for another, but it should now be considered an ordinary change in meaning.

“There’s a whiff of the eggcorn about all of this; at least, the similarity in spelling and sound is likely to have played a role in encouraging what is otherwise an ordinary process of historical meaning shift,” he writes.

Most standard dictionaries still define “fakir” as an itinerant Muslim or Hindu holy man who lives by begging.

But Merriam-Webster’s Collegiate Dictionary (11th ed.) now accepts as standard English the use of “fakir” to mean an impostor or a swindler.

Merriam-Webster’s gives two examples of the usage: “a traveling carnival that was run by fakirs preying on small-town rubes” and “a fakir peddling patent medicines that were mostly liquor and sugar.”

As for the verb “fake,” it “has a rather slippery semantic history,” according to John Ayto’s Dictionary of Word Origins.

Ayto says it’s derived from feague, a long-obsolete verb that referred to “any number of nefarious operations, including beating up and killing.” The verb “fake” had a similar sense when it showed up in the 19th century.

But he says the current sense of “fake” (to “do up something spurious to make it seem genuine”) may be traced “back in a straight line to its probably ultimate source”—fegen, a German verb meaning to polish, clean, sweep, or refurbish.

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