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shameless pleading






Shine on brightly?

Dear Word Detective: I don’t wish to annoy, but “Away With Words” were dismissive about my pondering over the possible origin of “shenanigans,” otherwise logged as “Origin unknown.” While researching “shining,” I was intrigued by its relation to “monkeyshines,” and my brain formed the word-picture of Aunty, settin’ out on the front porch in her rocking chair, overseeing her charges and observing “There they go shinin’ agin.” Some words evolve in mysterious ways, but this seems a plausible scenario. — Jeroboam Bramblejam.

Hmm. By “Away With Words,” I’m assuming you mean “A Way with Words,” the US public radio show ( on which Grant Barrett and Martha Barnette answer listeners’ questions about words and language. I’ve never, I must admit, actually heard the show because, as far as I know, no station around here carries it. Our local public radio station, for instance, seems to be on a mission to make people hate classical music by playing nonstop Aaron Copeland cowboy music and Ottorino Respighi’s Pines of Freaking Rome. I suppose I could listen to the podcast of “A Way with Words,” but the word “podcast” makes me queasy. Anyway, Grant Barrett is a crackerjack lexicographer and Martha Barnette has written several books on word origins, so if they gave your theory short shrift on the air I’m sure it was for lack of time. Me, I have oodles of time, so you’ve come to the right place.

“Shenanigan” is a classic American colloquial invention, first appearing in print (as far as we know at the moment) in a San Francisco newspaper in 1855 (“Are you quite sure? No shenanigan?”). The initial meaning of “shenanigan” seemed to be something akin to “funny business,” trickery, intrigue, deception or fraud in business or civic dealings (“Consider them all .? guilty (of ‘shenanigan’) until they are proved innocent,” Mark Twain, 1862). By the early 20th century, however, “shenanigan” (especially in the plural form “shenanigans”) was being used in a more lighthearted sense to mean “tricks, pranks, silliness” or, as the Oxford English Dictionary (OED) puts it, “an exhibition of high spirits” (“The entire household looks on, laughing at the girls’ shenanigans,” 1969).

The origin of “shenanigan” is considered “unknown,” but several possibilities have been suggested, the most plausible, in my view, being the Irish word “sionnachulghim,” meaning “to play tricks, to be foxy” (from “sionnach,” fox). Another possible source is the Spanish “chanada,” a clipped form of “charranada,” meaning “trick.”

The lighthearted “silliness” sense of “shenanigan” is, as you noticed, quite close to the US colloquial term “monkeyshines,” which first appeared in print around 1832 meaning “prank, trick or antic behavior.” Monkeys figure prominently in words and phrases describing disruptive, but usually harmless, behavior, such as “monkey business,” “monkey around,” and others. The “shine” in “monkeyshines” originally, in the early 19th century, meant a party, but was also used to mean “a ruckus,” “a trick or caper,” and even “a fondness or liking” (“I wonst had an old flame I took sumthin of a shine to,” 1839). It’s possible that this “shine” is the same as the common noun meaning “radiance,” but a more likely source is the English dialectical terms “shindy” and “shinty,” both used to mean “commotion,” and both related to “shinny,” a game similar to field hockey played in the 17th century, named for the cry “Shin ye!” used in the game.

And now the envelope, please. Given the fact that “shenanigan” has plausible sources in both Irish and Spanish, and that early forms of the word were substantially different (“shenanegan,” “shenannikin,” et al.), it seems very unlikely that the word arose as a blending of the phrase “shining again.”

In fact, I can think of only one instance where a phrase of two or more words became a single word. “Ampersand” was originally the phrase “and per se and,” which was tacked onto the end of 18th century recitations of the English alphabet because “&” was then considered a letter capable of standing alone as a word (“per se,” by itself). The symbol we call an “ampersand” today is actually a symbolic rendition of the Latin “et” (meaning “and”) was pronounced as “and.” So “and per se and” meant “and, standing alone, and.” It’s an unlikely, but true, story. But the development of “ampersand” is solidly documented, which, unfortunately, that old lady on the porch is not.

3 comments to Shenanigan

  • i love your work, brother. i’d donate if i had some extra scratch, but i’m just a poor slob living day by day. i do recommend your site to any sentient being, so perhaps that is helpful.

    keep it up! i learn a lot from you and come here often to enlighten myself. you have a gift; you use it; hence you are a gift.

    all best,

    detroit mi

  • jeroboambramblejam

    … and thanks for the amusing & illuminatin’ analysis.
    As far as I know, they didn’t short shrift me aironautically, but in a brief text.
    My dad, Bob Birch, raised us on farina and puns (he loved “weighing with plurds”) so I may have inherited a much too flexicographical sense of such things.
    Thanks again for your thoughtful and generous explication!

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