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Shenanigans, or shenanigan, also with several variant spellings, can be dated to 1855 USA in both the OED and Etymonline, but the OED simply says "Origin obscure" and Etymonline throws a few guesses into the ring:

Suggestions include Spanish chanada, a shortened form of charranada "trick, deceit;" or, less likely, German Schenigelei, peddler's argot for "work, craft," or the related German slang verb schinäglen. Another guess centers on Irish sionnach "fox."

Can anyone provide anything more concrete?

(Note: Another question asks specifically about “I call shenanigans” but not shenanigans itself.)

  • 2
    Here's a second 1855 reference: to a "Shananigan ditch" dug in gold mining country in California in 1855. "On the first day of June, 1855, the defendants constructed two ditches, called respectively Rasin and Shenanagan Ditches, draining the waters of Todd's Valley Ravine, about one-half mile above the head of plaintiffs' ditch, and thereby diverting and depriving the plaintiffs of the waters that flow down said ravine." – Peter Shor Dec 19 '13 at 4:58
  • It's actually a 1858 court case, but it's clear from this that the word was in use with its current meaning in 1855. – Peter Shor Dec 19 '13 at 5:20
  • 1
    It seems clear to me from the timing and location of the OED's citations and my discovery above that the word was coined (or popularized) in the 1849 California Gold Rush, an event which created ample opportunity to use the word. The ethnic make-up of California at the time would then argue for the Spanish origin. – Peter Shor Dec 20 '13 at 13:32
  • Excellent links @PeterShor! No use prior, and then 'boom' everywhere, and always in archtypal context... Theory: In your "second 1855 reference", the ditch is actually dug in 1850. The name 'Shenanagan' is capitalised and used consistently like it's a valid (albeit alternate) name. Later references in NYTimes refer to it in quotes, like an the name of an archetype for 'claim deception'. It's also used in the singular. I can't see a smoking gun yet, but I suspect it's an actual alternate name to the Nevada Water Co's Bicknell ditch coming into use before the case was heard but after deception. – shermy Dec 21 '13 at 3:30
  • 1
    This is purely an experiential comment but it has been my experience that the word is used heavily among Irish Americans, and not as much around other groups. This does not mean that the word is Irish in origin (Craic for instance is not Irish in origin) but it may give some weight to the Irish origin theory. – JamesOlinOden Jul 16 '14 at 19:52
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+300

Wentworth & Flexner, Dictionary of American Slang (1960) suggests an extended Irish term:

shenanigans n.pl. Tricks, pranks, nonsenses; petty cheating or deception. Since c1870; may be from the Irish "sionnochwigham" = I play tricks.

The same source lists "shenanannygag" (also meaning a trick or prank) as being based on shenanigans and "not common."

Chapman & Kipfer, Dictionary of American Slang, Third Edition (1995) bump the origin to "by 1855" and retain the Wentworth/Flexner suggestion that the word perhaps comes from sionnachuighim "play tricks, be foxy."

The Facts on File Dictionary of Word and Phrase Origins (1997) begins its entry with this sentence:

shenanigans. Though now it is always used in the the plural, this Americanism for "mischief" or "trickery" was first recorded as shenanigan in 1855 in California.

I suspect that the citation in question involves a story from the California Herald cited in numerous Google Books periodicals, such as this one from the Merchants' Magazine and Commercial Review, volume 40 (1859), in which the following sentence occurs:

Jim took his bill, and eyeing the puzzled landlord as though he suspected some "shenanigan," he broke out—

"I want to see them 'ar books."

The earliest Google Books occurrence of this anecdote is in Yankee-Notions, vol. 5 (1856), but unfortunately the snippet view of this version of the story doesn't include the relevant term within its window. [Note (added 7 October 2015): As Hugo points out in a comment below, the relevant text from the December 1856 issue of Yankee-Notions appears in a Hathi Trust copy of that periodical.]


ADDED TO ANSWER (1/3/14):

Not surprisingly—considering its date of publication—John Russell Bartlett, Dictionary of Americanisms (1848) doesn't include an entry for shenanigan or shenanigans. But I was somewhat surprised that the second edition of this book (1859) has no such entry either. I haven't been able to find a copy of the third edition. The fourth edition (1877) does have shenanigan, along with this interesting discussion of the equivalence of shenanigan, skullduggery, and hornswoggle:

The "Philadelphia Times" (Nov. 5. 1877), in defining the word skullduggery [which Bartlett calls "a very good and very common word in the West"], says, "Its best Eastern equivalent is shenanigan, although the less complicated word hornswoggling [which Bartlett also identifies as "Western"] rather directly translates it."

This quotation suggests that shenanigan had become popular enough in the Eastern United States by 1877 for Easterners to consider it commonplace in (and perhaps even native to) their region.

Another early discussion of shenanigan (though spelled with a fourth n) occurs in Maximilian Schele De Vere, Americanisms: The English of the New World (1872):

Shenannigan, probably a purely fictitious word (though a Dutch origin has been claimed for it), frequently heard in the South and West, and denoting groundless bragging for the purpose of getting the better of another. "Shenannigan means any kind of chaff, foolery, nonsense, advanced to cover some little scheme or game." Hence Miss Vinnie Ream, the artist, whose skill was said to have been largely measured by her personal charms, was recently admonished by a writer in the Chicago Evening Post to "go to work and try better next time, instead of fooling members of Congress by a pair of black eyes and a mass of beautiful curls. No shenannigan, Vinnie!" (January 1871.)


FURTHER UPDATE (7/30/16):

An Elephind search turns up four occurrences of shenanigan in a California newspaper between July 10, 1854, and January 1, 1855. From "By Telegraph to the Union" in the Sacramento [California] Daily Union (July 10, 1854):

San Joaquin Democratic Convention. Stockton, July 9th, 1854. The Democratic Convention held in this city yesterday passed off with considerable jarring, and no few discordant notes. There was considerable "shenanigan" going on amongst them, and it is hardly supposable that the ill-feelings engendered are yet quieted down.

From "Postscript: San Francisco Correspondence," in the Sacramento [California] Daily Union (November 16, 1854):

After a few important preliminaries, a committee consisting of the following gentlemen were named to superintend the drawing, to see, as it was facetiously expressed by one of the "gods," that there was no "Shenanigan" about it, namely: Geo. H. Hoasefross, J. L Van Bokkelen, T. K. Battelle, Marshal McKenzie. W. H. Patten, F. M. Pixley, F. E. R. Whitney, R. B. Quayle, ...

From "The City: Pedestrianism" in the Sacramento [California] Daily Union (December 26, 1854):

The rival pedestrians, Wheeler and peeler, are making a great ado about walking a plank for one hundred and two consecutive hours. We can point to some clothiers on J street, in this city, who have been walking the planks in front of their stores, for a customer, for the past month. The exercise—they so regard it—is taken in full view of the populace, and conducted without any "shenanigan."

From "The City: Pastime" in the Sacramento [California] Daily Union (January 1, 1855):

Purse, ten dollars. Match, the horse to pull a lock-wheeled wagon weighing 2,390 pounds, and four persons more than the mare could. The preliminaries were arranged, after much confab, as follows: "Get away from that wheel we don't want any shenanigan—wheel ain't chucked—lift and see—stand back in front—here's four big men in the wagon (from an insider)—get in the center—two behind and two before—even on heels—turn that wheel up—take off that chain—don't let that horse run off with us (inside again)—&c."

The term also appears as a verb, in "Law Report: Twelfth District Court," in the [San Francisco, California] Daily Alta California (June 19, 1855):

A. D. Brown, witness for plaintiff, testified that he had had a conversation with the defendant, Zane, in which Zane said that the plaintiff had been trying to "shenanigan" him; that if he, Zane, failed in the action, he intended to have some satisfaction anyhow; that he had employed Judge Heslep as his counsel; that Heslep was an enemy of Satterlee's and hated him; that if Heslep could not gain the suit, he would at least give Satterlee a good "blackguarding."

It thus appears that shenanigan may first have been used in print in 1854 in a string of articles in the Sacramento Daily Union, where it seems consistently to have had a meaning along the lines of "fraud, deceit, or dirty trick playing."

  • 2
    Thanks for this. Where Google tempts, Hathi Trust provides (left column, just below image caption). – Hugo Dec 31 '13 at 9:43
  • 2
    Wentworth & Flexner clearly don't know their Irish. Sionnochwigham is utterly bungled up. The form used later on, sionnachuighim, would be the proper one. Presumably the English word should then be from the person-neutral present form sionnachuigheann, except that's pronounced /SHUN-uh-xee-un/ (excuse the ad hoc notation; typing IPA on a phone doesn't work), which audibly lacks both an n and a g compared to the English word. – Janus Bahs Jacquet Dec 31 '13 at 11:58
  • Good efforts... Certainly no better to offer atm, but the use still seems consistent with archetypal idea (referring to a deception via the ditch, perhaps - or the incident of supposed trickery). Wish there was something more concrete earlier. Seems strange that Bicknell et al might call a contentious dig (a ditch diverting water from other sites) 'Shenanagan' if it had any negative or deceitful connotation. Currently looking along native american etymological routes... (as in 'river through the spruces', shenandoah... but most likely wrong language, group, etc – shermy Jan 1 '14 at 12:34
  • ... (continued) probably clutching at straws. An old map of the area in question would be best showing the Nevada Water Co interests + Marius Ravine... but no joy so far. – shermy Jan 1 '14 at 12:35
  • 1
    For the record, now I’m back on my computer, the proper IPA for sionnachuigheann (modernised spelling would be sionnachaíonn, though it’s not included in De Bhaldraithe’s Irish-English dictionary) would be, approximately, [ˈʃʌnˠɤˌxɰ͡iː(ə)n], with a reversal of primary and secondary stress in some southern and western dialects. – Janus Bahs Jacquet Jan 1 '14 at 13:09
4

This word is commonly used in the UK, and my Irish friend says its origin is from Erse (Irish Gaelic), spelt differently, but meaning the same thing - tricksy, fox like, etc. There is no proof of this, but it is a fact that many Irishmen working as navvies were present in California at the time this word appeared in the States.

UPDATE: Original gaelic Irish word 'sionnachuighm' meaning to play tricks - rough pronunciation at that time 'shinnuckeem'.

  • 1
    Although you don't have the official research, I'm with you, here. Spanish? German? C'mon all yous edumacated people...you can practically picture a leprechaun saying that word. IMO the next logical choice of origin would be a garbling of something Native American (which it also resembles). – Oldbag Dec 22 '14 at 10:16
3

Irish speaker here. Sionnachaíonn makes some amount of sense alright, the literal translation would be something akin to "to fox". Totally irrelevant but this has been pretty interesting

2

This can't be Irish at all -- I'm an Irish speaker and I've never come upon this phrase or idiom -- "sionnach" is fox but tricks would be something like cleasanna -- and the idea than anyone pronounced it "shinnuckeem" is pure nonsense. The Irish soft /ch/ is more fronted, very unlikely to give way to a glottal stop like /k/ or /g/. I think the word just "sounds Irish" to those who don't know the language.

0

Interesting to me that the rise and fall in popularity (using Google's Ngram Viewer) seems to follow the major World Wars.

https://books.google.com/ngrams/graph?content=shenanigan&year_start=1850&year_end=2000&corpus=15&smoothing=3&share=&direct_url=t1%3B%2Cshenanigan%3B%2Cc0

Maybe Rumpelstiltskin is involved, after all. :)

  • I see the rise during WWII, much less so with WWI, did you look through any of the results to see if they came from the same text, or if they had a common theme? Hmm... this doesn't even attempt to answer the OP's question, does it? – Mari-Lou A Dec 17 '15 at 17:40
  • Only as far as the origins... It was a facetious post implying that a devious leprechaun, possibly Rumpelstiltskin, was involved. ;) – Tim Ward Dec 17 '15 at 19:00
  • Very different for "Shenanigans", 1900 to 2008, with a smoothing of 3. First used in the 1930s, 40s and 50s, becoming less relevant though the 60s and some of the 70s, and rocketing upwards to record highs towards the end of the 70s and through the 80s, 90s, and some of the next centuries first decade. Finally the trend takes its second hit where it again falls significantly, and unfortunately the data runs out. Living in England, for me this makes a lot of sense, I expect the graph to show an uncompromising vertical upwards trajectory during the current decade of the 2010s. – alan2here Dec 5 '16 at 17:06
  • Although Google Ngram viewer shows that things were pretty "janky" in the 70s, as they are today, and got a lot less janky in the 80s. Again the whole world is not England where I live, and I'm not old enough to have first hand experience of the times, but I'm not sure what to make of that one. – alan2here Dec 5 '16 at 17:15
  • Can use case insensitive "janky, shenanigan" to get one possible summery of the story, I'll let others summarize. – alan2here Dec 5 '16 at 17:21

protected by Community Dec 27 '15 at 4:22

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