Hoax, Fake, and Other Words for Deception

By Maeve Maddox

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It’s a harsh indictment of human nature that we have so many words for deception. (I’m assuming that English is not alone in this.)

The frequent use of the words hoax and fake in these duplicitous times has led me to explore their meanings and synonyms.

Hoax functions as either a noun or a verb. Although the noun dominates in current usage, the verb has an earlier citation (1796) in the Oxford English Dictionary than the noun (1808).

hoax (verb): To deceive or take in by inducing to believe an amusing or mischievous fabrication or fiction; to play upon the credulity of.

hoax (noun): An act of hoaxing; a humorous or mischievous deception, usually taking the form of a fabrication of something fictitious or erroneous, told in such a manner as to impose upon the credulity of the victim.

Some think the word derives from the nonsense incantation hocus-pocus, which was used in the seventh century with the meaning “charlatan” or “juggler.” The OED, however finds no evidence to support the theory:

This origin [from hocus-pocus] suits sense and form, but there is no direct evidence of connection, and eighteenth-century quotations for hocus [as a verb] are wanting.

My recollection of first hearing the word hoax was in connection with Piltdown Man, an elaborate paleoanthropological fraud that fooled some scientists for about forty years and fooled the public for even longer. Although the hoax was definitively disproved in 1953, books that treated it as factual remained for another decade or two in bookstores and on library shelves.

Synonyms for hoax (noun): ruse, deception, fraud, con, scam.

Although the OED definition includes the words amusing and mischievous, generally speaking, the connotations of hoax are dark. A hoax may provide its perpetrator with amusement, but for the victim, a hoax is at the very least humiliating and at the most, harmful.

NOTE: Although mischief and mischievous are words now associated with harmless childish pranks, one definition of mischief is “An injury wrought by a person or other agent.”

Fake, on the other hand, does not share the completely negative connotations of hoax.

Fake functions as noun, verb, and adjective.

Fake (noun): a counterfeit person or thing.
Fake (adjective): Spurious, counterfeit.
Fake (verb): To feign or simulate.

Whereas a hoax always has as its object the deceiving of an unsuspecting victim, the negativity of fake depends upon context.

The negative, dishonest connotation applies when things and behavior are faked to achieve dishonest aims. A child might fake a toothache to avoid chores. A con artist might fake friendship to draw in a mark. An enemy of the state might distribute fake news to sow mistrust.

On the other hand, things can be faked without the intention to deceive. Some products are openly imitative of something more expensive, such as fake diamonds, which buyers knowingly choose because they cannot afford the genuine article. Vegans may choose to buy fake leather and fur. Teachers and decorators have uses for fake fruit.

In the context of jazz, fake has musical connotations
fake (noun): a book of music containing the basic chord-sequences of tunes.
fake (verb): to improvise

Because fake has so many denotations, it has many synonyms.

Fake as Noun
forgery, copy, sham, fraud, imitation, reproduction

Fake as Adjective
fraudulent, feigned, bogus, forged, inauthentic

Fake as Verb
forge, counterfeit, falsify, pirate, replicate, doctor, tamper with

A full-fledged hoax, like Piltdown Man, involves layer upon layer of deception that the average person is probably not equipped to verify.

Things that are merely “fake,” on the other hand, such as the fake toothache, fake friendship, and fake news, can often be revealed as false by the alert parent, mark, or citizen who makes an effort to verify appearances.

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