We English speakers have lots of ways to suggest someone is up to no good. This week we’ll cover a few of them.
A nefarious (or in some cases fun-loving) individual might engage in shenanigans. This word showed up in 1855 in California. Though my ear tells me shenanigans is likely a slur against the Irish (like so many other words), most etymologists disagree. Though nobody’s really certain, shenanigans appears to have come from a Spanish word, charranada, which means trick or deceit. A small dissenting group of etymologists suggest shenanigans may have come from a German word, schenigelei, a word referring to the peddler’s craft. And an even smaller group of much-maligned etymologists suggest the word may have come from the Irish word for fox, sionnach. Hmm.
Another word referring to a rogue’s deeds or actions is knavery, a noun that appeared in the 1580s based on the much older word knave. Knave’s root, from Old English, is the noun cnafa, originally meaning a boy or male servant. By 1200, though, knave/cnafa picked up the negative connotation, rogue or rascal. The word knavery was born of that connotation.
An 1841 word that originally meant trickery is hanky-panky. Though it’s not quite nailed down, it’s likely hanky-panky evolved from hoky-poky, which evolved from hocus-pocus. And a century after hanky-panky was first put to paper, about 1939, hanky-panky picked up the meaning sexual dalliance.
Knavery, shenanigans & hanky-panky can also be referred to with the somewhat less loaded word, antics, which came to English in 1520 & meant grotesque or comical gesture. Its root is the word antico, which originally referred to ancient, unearthed Roman murals, seen to be strange & bizarre, thus labeled antico, a word which has since morphed to mean antique.
The 1809 verb skylark means to frolic or play. The word skylarking was originally used to refer to the antics of exuberant sailors playing in the rigging.
And the idiom monkey business was born in 1883 to refer to questionable shenanigans. Monkey business may reflect the word monkey’s history, as monkey came through Old French from the Arabic word maimun, which meant both monkey & auspicious; the sighting of an ape was perceived to be unlucky – almost as unlucky as being the victim of monkey business.
So, good readers, what do you have to say about these etymological shenanigans?
Big thanks to this week’s sources: Etymonline, Wordnik, Collins Dictionary, Merriam-Webster, & the OED.
I write for teens, narrate audio books, bake bread, play music, and ponder the wonder of words in a foggy little town on California's central coast.
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