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.
Words of California
In the world of words we tend to think in terms of languages, regions, & dialects. This week we’ll turn those tables & consider words born in a chunk of the map identified with no thought at all to language & dialect: the state of California.
In a case of etymology reflecting the uglier side of history, the abalone got its English name in 1850. The word abalone was stolen from the Spanish (abulon). And the Spanish stole it from the native Costanoan speakers of California who called the shellfish aluan.
In 1855 the word shenanigan became a way of defining wild behavior on the streets of San Francisco. It’s unclear where the word came from, but most linguists seem to lean toward the Spanish word chanada, a word meaning trick or deceit.
In 1856 Californians borrowed the Chinese pidgin word chow-chow, cut it in half and had chow, a new word for food. Interestingly, the pidgin word chow-chow was a reduplication of the Chinese word tsa or cha, meaning mixed.
Speaking of mixed, the word for the mixed drink, martini (born in 1886) may or may not have been born in California. Though some etymologists argue that martini comes from a popular manufacturer of vermouth, Martini & Rossi, others insist the drink was first mixed in Martinez, California, & was named after the town.
The word boysenberry was born in California. Named after its botanist father, Rudolf Boysen, both the word boysenberry & the berry itself (a blackberry/raspberry hybrid) showed up in 1935.
In 1964 the Californian word skateboard appeared. The practice of attaching roller-skate wheels to a piece of wood started in Southern California in 1963. By the summer of 1964 skateboarding was popular all over the country.
If you have anything to say about these pesky Californians messing with our language, please leave a comment.
Big thanks to this week’s sources: Etymonline, Wordnik, 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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