‘Origins Unknown’



It’s such an American thing, an impartial observer might say: taking pride in an unclear ancestry. But as lovers of words know, etymology, like genealogy, gets mixed up in interesting ways.

Most words have traceable origins. Sometimes, though, we have nothing to go on, and so we get the dictionary’s best guesses:

• from Wolof (?)

• possibly related to Old French

• altered (?)

I’m particularly fond of dictionary entries that have “origins unknown” or “origins obscure,” or that exist in other states of etymological contingency. But, of course, “origins unknown” is in its own way a definitive statement. And it applies to some of my favorite words.

One such word is shenanigans. We use it to mean tricks, tomfoolery, misbehavior. But where does it come from?

The OED’s first citation for shenanigan (singular) is from 1855, when a San Francisco publication provided the lines “Are you quite sure? No shenanigan?” There are lots of variants—shinanigan, shenanigin, and so on. None of them helps much. The first plural turns up in Edna Ferber’s Show Boat in 1926, when a character disavows “low-life shenanigans.” Since the ’20s, shenanigans are most often to be found in the plural, and while the spelling varies, the contexts always point to matters of deception, though often of a minor degree.

One sense of the word seems persistent, and not directly related to mischief. It’s the association of shenanigans with the Emerald Isle. The descendants of Mr. Webster, opining in the New World College Dictionary (4th ed.), posit that the word is ”[altered ? < Ir sionnachuighim, I play the fox]“— but much depends on that ”?”

True, “Shenanigan” does sound like a lovable supporting character in an Irish-themed musical, but is it really Irish? And if not, can words become what we want them to be?

A writer at South Boston Today, reviewing an establishment called Shenanigans in 2012, described it as having “an Irish name for an Irish pub.” The website of a New Jersey restaurant called Shenanigans prints its name in green and crowns it with shamrocks. In fact, shenanigans is so closely associated with Irish pubs that you can find Irish-themed drinking establishments from Long Beach to Liverpool to Australia.

Words without clear lineage, being terra incognita, are all the better for colonizing. If we don’t know where a word comes from, we’re free to invent meanings and associations. The more often we are told that a word has a given origin, the more likely we are to believe it.

I’m as guilty as the next lexicographophile—that’s probably not a real word, but it should be—of wanting the truth about every word’s origin. That’s what word nerdiness is all about. But I admit that as much as I want answers to these questions, having them would take a lot of the mystery—and some of the mischief—out of the language business.

The OED’s etymology for shenanigans, “Origin obscure,” suits me fine.

Come to think of it, Origin Obscure might make a great name for a hipster drinking establishment—or at least a heck of a cocktail at a bar called, of course, Shenanigans.

Author Bio: William Germano is dean of humanities and social sciences and a professor of English literature at Cooper Union.