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Shenanigan – WordWednesdayFun

Shenanigan is often used in its plural form – shenanigans.

I associate it with the Irish. I can hear an Irish voice in my head saying,  “Be off wit yous. Enuff of yer shenanigans!” The voice rings out chastising some noisy street urchins.

The origins of the word appear to be uncertain. I still believe it is Irish in origin. But more of that later. First the Merriam-Webster definition –
noun she·nan·i·gan \shə-ˈna-ni-gən\
Popularity: Top 10% of words

Definition of shenanigan

: a devious trick used especially for an underhand purpose
a : tricky or questionable practices or conduct —usually used in plural
b : high-spirited or mischievous activity —usually used in plural

Examples of shenanigan in a sentence

  1. <students engaging in youthful shenanigans on the last day of school>

  2. <an act of vandalism that went way beyond the usual shenanigans at summer camp>

Did You Know?
The history of shenanigan is as tricky and mischievous as its meaning. Etymologists have some theories about its origins, but no one has been able to prove them. All we can say for certain is that the earliest known use of the word in print appeared in the April 25, 1855, issue of San Francisco’s Town Talk. Although the “underhanded trick” sense of the word is oldest, the most common senses in use now are “tricky or questionable practices” (as in “political shenanigans”) and “high-spirited behavior” (as in “youthful shenanigans”).

I will depart from my usual custom of posting the Urban Dictionary definition at this stage. The reason is that I find the etymology of shenanigan to be fascinating.

So here is what Stack Exchange has to say about its origins –

This word is commonly used in the UK, and my Irish friend says its origin is from Erse (Irish Gaelic), spelt differently, but meaning the same thing – tricksy, fox like, etc. There is no proof of this, but it is a fact that many Irishmen working as navvies were present in California at the time this word appeared in the States.

UPDATE: Original gaelic Irish word ‘sionnachuighm’ meaning to play tricks – rough pronunciation at that time ‘shinnuckeem’.

Okay, I have been selective as that site also lists a lot of other information about the origins of this word. But, the above is the one I both like and believe.

Top of the mornin’ to ya!

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  1. Adam Lawrence Adam Lawrence

    I’m always fascinated in how words from other languages get absorbed and redeployed in the English language. A famous example of the Irish Gaelic > British English:

    IG: Is maith sin. (Pronunciation: “iss my shin”; Translation: “That’s good.”)

    BE: Smashing!

    You can really see how the “smashing” was formed from squishing together the three Gaelic words.

    • Your example may be correct. Here is another explanation I found at Stack Exchange.
      ‘s math sin is a Scottish gaelic phrase that means “Great!”. It literally means “that is good” and is pronounced shih-mah-sheen. It is possible that smashing comes from this phrase.
      Another British phrase that is now more popular than ‘smashing’ is ‘the dog’s bollocks’! As in when addressing a lady in a new dress and saying that she ‘looks the dog’s bollocks.’ 🙂
      Whichever way you look at it they are both preferable to ‘awesome’!

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