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.

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