Word of the Week: Canny (and uncanny)

My mother returned from a trip to Scotland some years ago with a stack of decals for car windows that said “Ca’ canny”, which she passed out to every family member that had a car.  This was a Scottish term, she said, for “Go carefully” or in other words, “be safe.” She had this wish for anyone leaving her premises, so she also had it carved on the back of the sign which announced the arrival at our summer  home in northern Wisconsin.
Ca' canny sign

I also hear the word uncanny used to describe someone with an unusual knack for something, such as “She has an uncanny ability to understand what people are thinking.”  Confused about the difference and even whether the use of uncanny was wrong, I decided to do research on both words.

Canny (adjective), according to the web site Dictionary.com, is a Scots word first noted approximately 1630-40, combining “can” (know) and the suffix “y” –  or…

1. astute; shrewd; knowing; clever – as in “a canny negotiator”

2. careful; cautious; prudent – which fits with my mother’s explanation of “Ca canny”: “a canny reply”.

3. skilled; expert – as in, once again, “a canny negotiator”

4. frugal; thrifty – “a canny housewife” (I’ve never heard it used this way, but it could also be said that the frugal housewife is clever or prudent).

5. (Quoting Dictionary.com directly):

Scot.

  1. safe to deal with, invest in, or work at (usually used with a negative).
  2. gentle; careful; steady.
  3. snug; cozy; comfortable.
  4. pleasing; attractive.
  5. Archaic. having supernatural or occult powers.

No. 5 is interesting, because of its similarity to uncanny, which I explain below.

There are contemporary examples using canny on the definition page for this word on Dictionary.com.

So if canny means all the things above, what is uncanny? I sort of thought it was the same thing but here is the definition of uncanny (again, Dictionary.com).

Uncanny is an adjective meaning
1. unusual, extraordinary; seeming to have a supernatural or inexplicable basis – as inan uncanny ability to foresee the future”

2. mysterious; arousing superstitious fear or dread; very strange – as in “Uncanny sounds filled the house.”

So, in spite of the prefix un-, uncanny doesn’t seem to really mean the opposite of canny; the two are related, but both legitimate. Interestingly, the first noted use of the word uncanny has an earlier date: 1590-1630, which makes its noted use older than its root word.

According to the British Dictionary, uncanny in the 1590s meant “mischievous”; in 1773, it became “associated with the supernatural.” Its origin is Scottish and northern English. The idea of “mysterious or supernatural” would seem to be the opposite of “astute, knowing, or clever,” thus the addition of the prefix un- (meaning not).

According to Vocabulary.com, canny and uncanny as used today are not opposites. Canny is a synonym for shrewd, but has the negative connotation of cunning, a related word. Uncanny means “weird or unsettling.”

Here’s a little quiz:

  1. The ______________ (canny or uncanny?) lawyer is able to win his cases most of the time.

2. The ______________ (canny or uncanny?) fox knows how to outwit his
enemies.

3. The cat’s _______________ (canny or uncanny?) sense of direction helped
her to find her way back home every time.

inquisitive-cat300red_fox-5420

 Note: Pictures of cat and fox downloaded from Google images. The fox came from the web site: www.GSchneiderPhoto.com.

(Answers to quiz: 1. canny, 2. canny, 3. uncanny)

2 thoughts on “Word of the Week: Canny (and uncanny)

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