Why is fake news called a “hoax”? The origin of the synonym for fake news

Imagine coming across incredible news: “A unicorn discovered on a farm!”. After the initial surprise, you obviously discover that it's all made up. In short, it is a “hoax“. But why do we use this word to indicate false news or fake news? The etymology of the word “hoax” is closely linked to the animal of the same name, the buffalo, despite the link between the animal and the fake news it is not immediate.

One of the most accredited theories, because in any case we are talking about theories, not certainties, suggests that the use of “fala” with the meaning of “false news” derives from the expression “to lead by the nose like a buffalo”, which means trick making someone believe something false or ridiculous. This saying alludes to the practice of leading buffaloes by means of a nose ring, a symbol of control and deception.

Paolo D'Achille, an Italian linguist, in his work on neologisms, instead proposes an interesting and different explanation for the origin of the figurative meaning of “hoax”. The use would have arisen in the gastronomic field, not in reference to buffalo mozzarella, but to meat. Some Roman restaurateurs would in fact have passed off buffalo meat as the more prized veal. From here, the term “hoax” would have acquired the meaning of “rip off” and, by extension, of “false news”.

Another interesting meaning of “hoax” is the one that refers to a “shoddy film production”, as attested Tullio De Mauro, linguist, lexicographer and essayist, who noted its use starting from 1960. He would have used it with this meaning Gianfranco Calderoniwhich talks about «a film which, even before being seen, was defined as a “hoax” by our Roman friends».

On the other hand, whatever the true etymological origin of the terminological use, with the advent of the internet and social media, “hoaxes” have become a global phenomenon, now the order of the day. In particular, journalism has played a crucial role in consolidating the use of the term to describe invented or distorted news.