If you’ve been chasing a giant furphy, (falsimious rumerii) then you‘ve been running after one of those funny little Australian mammalian marsupials. Furphies flourished among the troops of Tobruk at the beginning of the twentieth century. They look a lot like a rabbit, only bigger than a rat. Hence the expression, "to chase a furphy down a rat-hole".

No wait; that was a furphy about a furphy!
Okay, would you believe?

    "If it is proved that the bugs originated from space, then the damage to the ozone layer may also have originated from space. This will render the ozone theory a furphy."

    Rob Horne, "Bugs in Space?” The Advertiser (Adelaide, Australia), Aug 3, 2001.

Actually the MaskedBabbler is not furphying around about this funny little noun. Pronounced FUR-fee it rhymes with words like Murphy, surfie and turfy. The contemporary source of a good furphy would be the office water cooler where one could hear any number of absurd stories.

An eponym, John Furphy was a wheelwright from Shepparton, Victoria and the creator of the famous Furphy Farm Water Carts. Invented sometime between 1878-1880, it was a new idea at a time when there were no other carts being used in this manner. Converted for military use they were used extensively in Europe and the Middle East to carry water to the troops. The men who drove these carts were the gossip nexus on the front. Because the sources were unreliable, any tall story told by Diggers to each other around the water wagons became known as a "Furphy." Eventually it became such an icon of Australian culture that it found its way into the dictionary.

    Few houses of the time were designed to collect rain water from the roof and hence, water needed to be collected elsewhere and transported for stock and domestic use. The method of carting water was then confined to horse drawn skids or sleds with mounted wooden barrels or casks. At the same time the growing demand for agricultural implements, led to the establishment of a foundry with a furnace to cast components rather than the time consuming task of forging. This became the catalyst for the efficient production of the robust and mobile water carrier known then, and now, as the Furphy Farm Water Cart.
It's a bit of an irony that John Furphy was an upright and very respectable man. A Methodist lay preacher, and not in the least bit given to rumor mongering or telling tall tales, his invention was to take iron bands like to ones used around the wheels of the era and shrink it around a cylinder of cast iron,'just as the iron tire was fitted to the wooden body of the wagon wheel.' Weighing about a ton when filled, the 180-gallon cart was the one most frequently used. Most of the time they hauled water and some were used for sanitation removing garbage. Balanced over the axle of a cart to distribute the weight, it was a fair load for a good horse to pull about.

Furphy Farm Water Carts were used at the large army camp at Broadmeadows, outside Melbourne, and later at Gallipoli and Egypt where water was scarce during World War I. Over 120 years later the company still operates as an engineering works in Shepparton. A remarkable number of the original tanks are still in use in Australia's heavy industries, firefighting, livestock and tree plantations. Most are gradually being replaced with galvanized steel on rubber tires. The first inscription to appear on the cart was simply "Furphy" a little while later it was changed to "J. Furphy, maker, Shepparton". Afterward the advertisements grew to include a list of other items made by Mr. Furphy. By 1898, he added a short rhyme with a strong message:

    "Good, better, best
    never let it rest
    till your good is better
    and your better best."

In 1920, his son William Furphy being a bit of a moralist and against drinking, added a message was intended to inspire the soldiers to do their best. Not wanting to upset any customers he cast it on his water wagons in Pitmann shorthand, which looks similar to Arabic. Translated it read:

    "Water is the gift of God,
    but beer is a concoction of the devil,
    don't drink beer."

A short time later in 1942, it was altered again. Depicting the traditional stork holding a baby, a second statement was added in shorthand:

    "Produce and populate or perish."

William Furphy attributed it to W M Hughes, Australia’s Prime Minister. At the same time the 1920 inscription was changed to the final, most remembered and recited phrase today:

    "Water is the gift of God,
    but beer and whisky are concoctions of the devil,
    come and have a drink of water."

Among other things that the company manufactured over a century ago were ranges of steel cooking pots known as camp ovens to cook stews, roast meat or bake bread. Today they are highly prized by some collectors.

So many furphies as rumors were flourishing among the much beloved ANZAC troops of Tobruk in 1914 that newssheets were published containing transcripts of wireless broadcasts. Produced regularly they ensured that furphies were "shot on the rise" and it soon became a source of morale and amusement, while destroying the breeding grounds for tattle by giving an authentic account of current events.

This word for downright tall tales is hardly heard outside of the Last of Lands. When it's slightly exaggerated then it's "a bit of a furphy" and it's "a furphy" when it's an outright lie. Like real rumors, furphies spread like wildfire. One celebrated war historian and veteran of Gallipolis, C.E.W. Bean, in response to spy rumors circulating in the trenches, put together another collection of furphies in 1915 called the 'Furphies Gazette.'

Shades of Furphy! A furphy-king is a retailer of rumors. More and more today reporters and politicians use the word meaning a lie. Correct me if I’m wrong and I’ll eat as furphy but I’ve even seen it on a few web pages as a comment by coders as in , \(remove the furphy\). The phrase Tom Collins as rumormonger was somewhat the precursor of furphy by the late 1800's. Adopted as a pseudonym by the writer, Joseph Furphy who was also John Furphy’s brother and author of Such is Life. "Soon young furphy had killed old Tom Collins dead, as they tautologously say, and is no furphy." However the use of ‘Tom Collins’ in this manner died out by the middle of the twentieth century.

You might be interested in learning than an American synonym for a furphy is the word scuttlebutt. A scuttlebutt was name for the lockable water cask on a ship's deck. Sailors congregating around the scuttlebutt would inevitably fall to exchanging yarns and the word eventually came to mean what it does today. As foreigners who speak English it's time to really work hard to maintain such a colorful word like 'furphy.’ Next time you hear something you'd love to say at work, but can't, try using, Boy! I heard some good furphies today! when you're spilling the beans around the water cooler.

The previous furphies were brought to you by:

Australian War Diary - The Middle East - Tobruk, Libya 1941 :
www.minerva.com.au/austwardiary/warriors/ ARMY/
Accessed May 09 2002.

Water Cart History:

Accessed May 09 2002.

Accessed May 09 2002.

Accessed May 09 2002.