An Etymologist As Lord of the Flies,
Or, Chicanery and Shenanigans All Over the Place
By Anatoly Liberman
Occasionally I find myself on someone else’s turf. My area of expertise is Germanic (English, German, Dutch, Scandinavian, and the rest), but English is full of French words borrowed over the centuries, beginning with the Middle Ages, words whose origin sometimes no one knows for sure. The more recent etymological dictionaries of French, Spanish, and Italian are much better-rehearsed than those devoted to English (there is simply no comparison), and if their authors say they are lost, we can conclude that honest but unsuccessful attempts have been made to discover the truth. By contrast, when an English etymological dictionary published in the course of the last eighty years dismisses us with the verdict “of unknown origin,” it may only mean that the editor or compiler has no idea where the word came from. Somebody perhaps does, but the answer remains hidden in an article even more obscure than the word in question or in an easily accessible publication that no one has bothered to read.
Chicanery was taken over from French in the late 17th century. Romance linguists argue endlessly over its origin, as becomes such a noun. In the past, I have occasionally deviated from the Germanic path. For example, I have ventured to deal with bigot, charlatan (both from French), and fiasco (from Italian, most likely via French). Naturally, I could only summarize other people’s opinions. Yet even that was not easy, for the literature on bigot and fiasco is vast (less so on charlatan) and hard to find. I probably would not have dared touch on chicanery if what I have read about it had not convinced me that the case is not entirely hopeless and if a possible clue from it had not led me to shenanigans, a word that seems to have perplexed even the boldest inventors of folk etymologies; my database contains zero citations on it (not a common case). The OED says: “Probably fanciful.” Although criticizing the OED smacks of blasphemy, I wince every time I see “fanciful” in it. No doubt, language is always at play, but a specialist’s duty consists in deciphering the rules of the game, so that it would perhaps have been better to say: “Origin unknown.” (For what is “fanciful”? An individual coinage? Coinages like boondoggle, Lilliputian, and quark—dozens of them—also have a base. They are not akin to babies’ babbling.)
The sound complexes shick and chick (I spell them as they would be pronounced in English) are easy prey for onomatopoeia. For example, verbs designating sharp noises (crack, click, flip, snap) and quick motions have been derived from them. Once such words come into being, they often develop figurative meanings, and their ties with sounds become harder to reconstruct. In French, the verb chicaner was first recorded in a poem of Fr. Villon, one of the greatest medieval poets (born 1431). It occurs in a mock description of a dialogue between him and his prosecutor, who advised him “to chicane.” Knowing Villon’s adventurous biography and the company he kept, we may be almost certain, that chicaner belonged to the contemporary cant rather than to the established vocabulary of the legal profession. The verb emerged from the depths of French low slang and proved to be surprisingly long-lived and attractive. As time went on, not only English but also German, Dutch, Swedish, and Norwegian borrowed it with the sense “harass,” and, of course, it continued into Modern French. It is less clear what it means in Villon’s poem. Since, in the Romance languages, many words with the root pronounced as shick denote smallness (Old French chic “small,” and compare Spanish chico ~ chica “little”), it has been suggested that the poet was advised to indulge in trickery and caviling or, to put it differently, in pettifogging, and thus confuse the judge(s). The same root is used in naming small things. Such is French chique “a small ball,” and the connection with balls may be significant.
An old conjecture traced chicanery to the game of mall, from there to a dispute in that or other games, and further, as The Century Dictionary puts it, to sharp practice in lawsuits. (From mall we have pall-mall, the game, the alley where it was played in London, and, presumably, our pedestrian and shopping malls; mall is related to mallet.) The root of chicane was believed to go back to the Medieval Latin unattested noun zicannum “a club or bat used in polo,” from Middle Greek, ultimately from Persian. A moment in a match of chugan has been preserved in a fine old Persian drawing: the game looks like pall-mall or hockey on horseback. However, we probably need not go so far for the etymology of chicanery. Pall-mall presupposed a good deal of trickery and wrangling. Both were its essential component. Words borrowed from the language of cards, dice, racing, and so forth have always been numerous. Our speech is also full of metaphorical expressions that originated as literal (non-figurative) phrases current in sports (the case is too close to call and the like). The hypothesis that chicanery arose in the environment of a game seems reasonable. The root is then sound symbolic or onomatopoeic and has nothing to do with Persian or Greek.
In looking through an extremely long entry on the roots mentioned above in Walther von Wartburg’s French etymological dictionary, 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. American English is a repository of odd local words of undiscovered origin. I don’t set high store by my suggestion. There are enough absurd etymologies in the world, and I could have abstained from increasing their number. But since absolutely no one has dealt with shenanigan, why not stick one’s neck out, even if the result happens to be a severed head?
Anatoly Liberman is the author of Word Origins…And How We Know Them as well as An Analytic Dictionary of English Etymology: An Introduction. His column on word origins, The Oxford Etymologist, appears here, each Wednesday. Send your etymology question to firstname.lastname@example.org; he’ll do his best to avoid responding with “origin unknown.”