A furphy is Australian slang for an erroneous or improbable story that is claimed to be factual. Furphies are supposedly 'heard' from reputable sources, sometimes secondhand or thirdhand, and widely believed until discounted.
You've might have heard someone say telling furphies or that was a bit of a furphy and wondered what they meant or where the expression came from. The word is a uniquely Australian idiom, a way of saying that something is an exaggerated story, a false report or a rumour.
The Oxford Dictionary defines the word Furphy as:
A rumour or story, especially one that is untrue or absurd
The Oxford Dictionary also explains the origin of the Australian Slang word as:
First World War: from the name painted on water and sanitary carts manufactured by the Furphy family of Shepparton, Victoria; during the war they became popular as a place where soldiers exchanged gossip, often when visiting the latrines.
There are a few theories as to how the saying first came into being. The most popular of these is as follows:
John Furphy was well known as a blacksmith, a wheelwright, and also as an agricultural machinery supplier. John, a blacksmith and engineer, set up his foundry business in 1864. It eventually became J Furphy & Sons and continues to the present day, still family owned and now fifth generation. Its present day logo is based on the water cart:
A decade after setting up his business in Shepparton, John Furphy and his long-time employee Uriah 'Cocky' Robinson, came up with the idea of a mobile water tank, and within a few years, Furphy water carts were familiar sights.
The carts had Furphy painted on the sides in vivid, dark red paint which led to it becoming a byword for rumour around the time of World War One.
The water tanks were selected to supply water to the Broadmeadows camp just out of Melbourne in 1914, when the troops were embarking to the First World War. These tanks were used for hygienic water supplies at the latrines.
This was one place where the troops could gather and in their anxious state, they were very, very keen to find out what was happening. The officers didn't disseminate much information, so obviously, it was an ideal spot for rumours to become rife. With the tank there, with the large lettering on the side, they associated the rumours with the word 'furphy'.
Other suggested origins
In his book Memories of a Signaller, Harold Hinckfuss wrote of the "furphies" or rumours of pending movements of troops, while awaiting transfer to the French lines from Egypt.
"Every day in the tent someone would come up with a 'furphy' that he had heard whilst down at the latrines. That is why the different stories were called furphies ('furphy' was the term used for a fart)" (p. 31).
Whereas, in Gallipoli, Peter Fitzsimons suggests that the term 'furphy' originated from a training camp at Broadmeadows, Victoria where a chap of the name Furphy would spread rumours of the embarkation date for the troops to go to Europe to assist the British Empire in the Great War.
At first, it was an exclusively Victorian word - then more and more Australians from other states began to pick it up. The earliest example in writing was in April, 1915, in a diary entry written by Staff Sergeant John Treloar, when he was camped near Cairo:
"Today's 'furphy', for never a day goes by without at least one being created, was about lights being prohibited in camp on account of the possibility of a German airship raid. Some of the troops do not suffer from lack of imagination."
Another suggested explanation is that the rumbling of an approaching water cart sounded like the firing of artillery, thus causing a false alarm. It is also used to refer to a foolish mistake, although the etymology of that is uncertain.