A Canny Question Proves Uncanny

By Rob Kyff

September 16, 2020 3 min read

I had just been thinking about the odd words "canny" and "uncanny" when an email from a friend arrived asking, "How are the words 'canny' and 'uncanny' related?"

Now, that's uncanny.

If you're a canny connoisseur of language (and if you're reading this column, you undoubtedly are), you know that "canny" means shrewd, prudent, as in "a canny investor" or "a canny observer."

"Canny" derives from the original meaning of our modern verb "can," which once meant "to know, understand." Because someone who knows or understands something is usually able to DO something, "can" eventually took on its current meaning "to be able."

Meanwhile, "canny" developed many other related meanings over the centuries, especially in the dialect of Scotland; these meanings included "frugal," "snug" and "pleasant."

A typical dialogue among Scottish clansmen went like this:

MacDowell: You're canny (frugal) with money, mon.

MacDuff: That's why I 'kin afford a tight, canny (snug) house.

MacDowell: 'Tis indeed a canny (pleasant) place to live.

MacDuff: Lay (it) on, MacDuff!

Another Scottish meaning of "canny" — "of good omen, auspicious" — involved superstition. Something that boded well was "canny," and, by contrast, something that seemed eerie or weird in a supernatural sense was "uncanny," a term first recorded in written English in 1773. That's why we still say that a strange coincidence is "uncanny" or that someone's memory for faces is "uncanny."

So, "uncanny" derives not from today's meaning of "canny" (shrewd) but from an old dialectical meaning of "canny" (auspicious).

As I said, the verb "can" originally meant "to know. "Can" derives from the Old English verb "cnawan" (to know), which is related to the Latin "gnoscere" and the Greek "gignoskein." These derived, in turn, from the Indo-European root "gno" (to know).

"Gno" lies behind an amazing array of English words related to awareness and understanding, including knowledge, cunning, notify, recognize, diagnosis, notorious, prognosis, ken, ignorant, agnostic, cognition, connoisseur, reconnaissance and reconnoiter.

Even some words that might seem unrelated to knowing are derived from "gno." "Uncouth," for instance," which now means "crude," once meant "unknown." "Narrate" comes from a word meaning "knowing, expert." And the "kith" of "kith and kin" originally meant "known people," that is, neighbors and friends.

Good to "gno."

Rob Kyff, a teacher and writer in West Hartford, Connecticut, invites your language sightings. Send your reports of misuse and abuse, as well as examples of good writing, via email to [email protected] or by regular mail to Rob Kyff, Creators Syndicate, 737 3rd Street, Hermosa Beach, CA 90254.

Photo credit: Pexels at Pixabay

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