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shameless pleading






But I’m good at bingo!

Dear Word Detective: I am a confessed crossword puzzle addict. Recently, I noticed both “canny” and “uncanny” as clues in the same puzzle. Well trained by your writings, I immediately recognized this as another example of “un-” words that don’t mean the negation of the apparent root. The question then arises, were the words originally related? — Ray.

That’s a darn good question. Incidentally, as a crossword puzzle addict, you’re made of sterner stuff than I am. People assume that I must love crossword puzzles, but I don’t, for the simple reason that I stink at them. Faced with a crossword more challenging than those found in Highlights for Children, my mind immediately erases itself and I am left with the vocabulary of a hedgehog. The funny thing is that if someone sits across the room and asks me the clues, I can often answer with no problem. Go figure.

You’re absolutely justified in suspecting that the “un” in “uncanny” doesn’t necessarily mean “not.” It’s ironic that the one “rule” of English word-formation that everyone knows so often turns out to be misleading. True, prefixes such as “un,” “dis,” “in” and “de” usually do signify negation of the root word (as in “disintegration,” something becoming less integrated, i.e., coming apart). But once in a while they actually act as intensifiers (as in “disgruntled,” meaning “very gruntled,” “gruntled” being an archaic word meaning “cranky”) or end up meaning nothing at all (as in “inflammable,” meaning essentially the same thing as “flammable”).

In the case of “canny” and “uncanny,” the “un” does, in fact, mean “not,” but both words have traveled far enough from their original meanings to make them not exactly opposites. “Uncanny,” in other words, means a bit more than simply “not canny.”

“Canny” is a very cool word. It first appeared in Scots and Northern English dialects as an adjective meaning “knowing, judicious, prudent, cautious,” and is simply based on the verb “can” in the sense of “to be able” (as in “I can fly”). “Canny” was picked up by English writers in the 17th century, who applied it to the Scots themselves in the sense of “cunning,” “wily” or “thrifty,” in line with the English portrayal of Scots as clever and frugal. The sense of “sharp” and “shrewd” eventually became more generalized, and today we use “canny” to mean “perceptive and wise” (“The canny investor avoids market fads”).

One of the other meanings of “canny” back in Scotland in the 16th century, however, was “trustworthy,” and when “uncanny” first appeared it was in the sense of “malicious or incautious” (i.e., not trustworthy). By the 18th century, “uncanny” had come to mean specifically “not safe to trust because of connections to the supernatural,” and eventually the word took on its modern meaning of “supernatural,” “weird” and “strange.” So “uncanny” came to mean something quite different than simply “not smart.”

3 comments to Canny/Uncanny

  • NHGranite

    I am going to venture another guess here. My grandmother was Scottish, and grew up in Blackburn, Lancashire, so more than one dialect was in her speech.

    If “canny” is knowing, and I think it is taken from “ken”, as in it’s beyond my ken, then to me “uncanny” is unknown or beyond knowing. Something weird means we don’t known how it originates or how it works, or uncanny – as in How did you do that? oooh witchcraft, we don’t know, unknown, uncanny. Spooky.

  • xyz

    “(as in “inflammable,” meaning essentially the same thing as “flammable”).”
    -INCORRECT: Look up your Strunk & White or Eats, Shoots & Leaves. If you’re old enough to remember vehicles that transported “flammable” liquids were originally labeled as “Inflammable” or “Highly Inflammable”. I even asked my parents about it at the time b/c of my childhood level of understanding the negating prefix (“in”). The explanation then as now is that it’s the same as “priceless”: you cannot put a price on it, & thus you cannot set a “flame” to it. But, owing to mass ignorance of proper English (just as in “nauseated” vs “nauseous”) those trucks, as per last 30 yrs, are now labeled as “flammable”. Bottomline: the correct word is still “inflammable” but correcting others on this would become an unpaid part-time job.

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