1909, from German PH, introduced by S.P.L. Sörensen, from P, for German Potenz "potency, power" + H, symbol for the hydrogen ion that determines acidity or alkalinity.
now in English usually representing "f," originally it was the combination used by Romans to represent Greek letter phi (cognate with Sanskrit -bh-, Germanic -b-), which at first was an aspirated "p," later the same sound as German -pf-. But by 2c. B.C.E. had become a simple sound made by blowing through the lips (bilabial spirant).
Roman "f," like modern English "f," was dentilabial; by c. 400, however, the sounds had become identical and in some Romanic languages (Italian, Spanish), -ph- regularly was replaced by -f-. This tendency took hold in Old French and Middle English, but with the revival of classical learning the words subsequently were altered back to -ph- (except fancy and fantastic), and due to zealousness in this some non-Greek words in -f- began to appear confusedly in -ph-, though these forms generally have not survived.
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