18 March 2011

Turn of Phrase: I Call Shenanigans

1966 board game available here
Last week, we looked at a phrase with Irish origins: "life of reilly." So, this week, I thought we'd examine a word that sure seems Irish in origins, "shenanigans," as in: "O'Reilly's up to his shenanigans again!" Dictionary.com defines shenanigans as mischief; prankishness or deceit; trickery. [I suppose if you are the one initiating the shenanigans, you'd claim the former; while if you were the object of such shenanigans, you'd claim the latter, eh?] The word is almost always used as a plural; apparently a single "shenanigan" just isn't possible. Some people use the phrase "I call shenanigans" to call out a prankster or, perhaps, an automobile dealer of ill-repute. 

Here's a pop culture example from the movie Super Troopers (2001):
Captain O'Hagan: I swear to God I'm going to pistol whip the next guy who says, " Shenanigans." 

Mac: Hey Farva what's the name of that restaurant you like with all the goofy shit on the walls and the mozzarella sticks? 
Farva: You mean Shenanigans? 
[as they hand the Captain their pistols
Like shenanigans themselves, the origins of the word "shenanigans" is quite mysterious and tricky. Some sources say that the word is an Americanism through and through, since the first recorded use of the word was in 1855 in a San Francisco newspaper. Since there were plenty of Irishman working in California during the time of the gold rush, it's not such a stretch to attach Irish roots to the word, but no one can seem to agree on the origins. I've seen the word said to be Irish, Spanish, German, or even French in origin, though the people at English Forums beg to disagree with some of those suggestions.

This question and answer comes from the archives at the Take Our Word For It word origin webzine:
Is shenanigans from Irish shee nanna gasne or from French for `I dunno'?
One source doesn't even mention a possible Irish origin, but instead, it indicates that Spanish chanada (a short form of charranada `trick, deceit') is a likely origin. William and Mary Morris note that shenanigans could comes from Irish sionnachuighim `I play the fox.' But both the sources mention German dialectic schinageln `to work at hard labor' as a possible origin forshenanigans. Apparently, the implication is `using trickery to avoid hard labor.'
A French connection is unlikely. 
Carly, of Carly Googles, begs to differ:
In looking through an extremely long entry on the roots ..., I stumbled upon the form sikanadenn, a Breton word for “a kind of whip or rod” (Breton is a Celtic language spoken in Brittany, France). It was borrowed from French. “Whip” comes from “a crack (of a whip).” Even if French chicaner does not refer to smallness, we are confronted by several homonymous sound imitative roots.

The Breton word resembles shenanigan, which surfaced in American English in the middle of the 19th century. The resemblance is not striking but sufficient to whet a stranded etymologist’s curiosity. (When in trouble, even the Devil eats flies, as they say in German.)
A hundred years ago, dictionaries cited only the singular (shenanigan, not shenanigans). I wonder whether it is possible that some word like Breton sikanadenn, Celtic or not, an alteration of chicane, turned into shenanigan. Chicanery was first defined as “nonsense; humbug,” rather than “the use of trickery.” Today shenanigans means “dishonest maneuvering; mischief.” The two words are near synonyms.
 Here's what Michael Quinion, of World Wide Words, has to say about it:

Where [the word "shenanigans"] comes from is still a matter of substantial dispute; the first five dictionaries I consulted gave four different origins (Oxford Dictionaries — as so often — opting for the ultra-cautious “origin unknown”). The word looks Irish, and there was no shortage of Irishmen in the California diggings, so it’s plausible to suggest the Irish word sionnachuighm as the source, meaning ‘I play tricks’, which is pronounced roughly as ‘shinnuckeem’. Others argue it comes from an East Anglian dialect word nannicking for playing the fool. Yet others guess at a link with the Spanish word chanada for a trick or deceit, which is another half-way plausible source, considering California’s history. Yet another theory was put forward in 1948 in American Speech for an origin in Germanschinnagel for a nail that holds the rim to the wheel, which produced the German slang terms schinageln, to work, and Schenigelei, a trick. As the man behind the market stall said, you pays your money and you takes your choice ...
 No more shenanigians here for today... what do you think is the most plausible origin of the word shenanigans? Also, have you ever tried to type "shenanigans" a bunch of times in a blog entry? It's not so easy, let me tell ya!

If you liked reading this, join me next Friday as I research another phrase and share my results with you. Want to know where your favorite word or phrase came from? Leave me a comment and you might see your word/phrase in a future Turn of Phrase feature. 


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