A Canny Question Proves Uncanny

Rob Kyff on

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!


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