Chicano / Chicanery

Not. Even. Close.

Dear Word Detective: I have read your column for years now, and always smile when I hear a story from a tour guide giving me the supposed origin of a word or phrase. Not because I know the true origin, but because I’ve read your words of wisdom “Never trust a tour guide” too many times! This past weekend was no exception. In San Diego, the tour guide told us that the word “Chicano” (meaning a Mexican-American) came from the word “chicanery.” According to his story, Texas was fighting to become a separate sovereign nation in the mid 1800s and felt that to do so, everyone from Mexico had to be kicked out of the state. Of course, those deported didn’t think that was quite right and some of the young Mexican men came back to cause trouble — in other words, to participate in “chicanery” and mischief — hence the word “Chicano” to specifically mean a young Mexican-American man. This seems seriously far-fetched to me. My dictionary says “Chicano” is from the word “Mexicano” and originated over 100 years after that conflict. Please tell me that you are, once again, correct about tour guides! — Ellen.

Well, I’m reluctant to permanently alienate all the tour guides on the planet; you never know when one might rescue you, Saint Bernard style, with a tiny keg of Pepto-Bismol at a especially toxic tourist-trap buffet. But that particular tour guide is either a frustrated fiction writer or simply insane. Maybe both.

“Chicano,” meaning a person of Mexican birth or descent residing in the US, does indeed come from the Mexican Spanish word “Mexicano” (Spanish “mejicano”), and first appeared in print as a noun in 1947. As an adjective, “Chicano,” meaning “of or pertaining to Mexican-Americans,” came along quite a bit later, first appearing in 1967. The transformation of “Mexicano” into “Chicano” was apparently largely due to the pronunciation of “Mexicano” in Mexican Spanish, where the first syllable is unaccented and nearly unvoiced. “Chicano” also probably reflects the influence of the Spanish “chico,” meaning “boy,” frequently used as a nickname or term of familiar address.

The Oxford English Dictionary defines “chicanery” as “Legal trickery, pettifogging, abuse of legal forms; the use of subterfuge and trickery in debate or action; quibbling, sophistry, trickery,” but “clever trickery” probably covers most uses of the term (“You don’t need to look abroad to find evidence of fraud and chicanery in corporate operations,” Motley Fool, 8/10). Unfortunately, “chicanery” itself is a tricky little word, and its origins are a bit murky. It first appeared in print in English in the early 17th century, borrowed from the French “chicanerie,” meaning “trickery,” which was derived from the Middle French “chicaner,” meaning “to trick, pettifog or deceive.” The origins of that “chicaner” are uncertain, but the best bet seems to be that it represents a borrowing of the Middle Low German word “schikken,” meaning “to arrange or bring about.” A person who routinely practices “chicanery,” incidentally, has been known since the late 17th century as a “chicaner,” a word that obviously deserves to be far more well known than it is.

4 comments on this post.
  1. Wm Watkins:

    A long-time reader, I have not forgotten your advice to distrust word origins provided by tour guides. Recently a tour guide in Florida said that Spanish Moss (the fluffy stuff hanging from many trees in the American deep south) was so named by native Americans because it resembled the long beards worn by newly arrived Spanish soldiers.

    I had previously heard that the prevalent moss was given the name because, at the time, the deep south (especially Florida) was known as “New Spain,” much as the northeast was known as “New England”. (I also suspect that the natives had a word for the ubiquitous stuff long before the arrival of the Spanish.) Is either correct, or is there another explanation?

  2. Gene:

    I’m disappointed there is no entry for “chicane” as this is a term commonly used in auto racing, especially sport car racing.

  3. Terje:

    Dictionaries are even less to be trusted because they change with the changing of societal norms. Political correctness has tainted many elements. I have always been taught and even remember seeing it in the dictionary back before pc was rampant that the word chicano was a slur that took on a political value to the mexican american. Rather than be affected they wore it like a badge of pride, nullifying its harm.

  4. Thomas Roche:

    Terje: I remember hearing, also long before PC took hold, just the opposite. In my (admittedly meager) reading on Chicano activism, I have not seen a reference the word “Chicano” addressed as a slur that was reclaimed. I HAVE encountered the etymology mentioned above (that it derives from “Mexicano.”)

    By your assertion that “Dictionaries are even less to be trusted,” I assume you mean “dictionaries are to be trusted less than individual tour guides”?

    Wow, that is a weird thing to say.

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