Monday, October 18, 2010


It's been in the air of late, right? Maybe it's just me, but election season seems to be a good time to dust the word off and put it out into use again. It means dirty tricks and shady dealings, doesn't it? But it's an odd word and unless it's related to Chicano, which I sincerely hope it isn't, it's origins seem a bit obscure. So what is chicanery and where do I go to learn how to do it?

Okay, it does mean trickery, and comes from the French chicanerie and back to the Middle French chicaner, "to pettifog, to quibble". But this definition brings up the many marvelous words that are synonyms of chicanery, like hanky-panky, jiggery-pokery, legerdemain, skullduggery, and shenanigans.

Chicanery just seems to bring out the poet in everyone.

Through researching this word, I came across the terrific posts for Oxford University Press of etymologist Anatoly Liberman. Although, he is learned and I am not, on our sense of the origins of words I think we would be very sympatico. In his musings on "chicanery" he says:

Although criticizing the OED smacks of blasphemy, I wince every time I see “fanciful” in it. No doubt, language is always at play, but a specialist’s duty consists in deciphering the rules of the game, so that it would perhaps have been better to say: “Origin unknown.” (For what is “fanciful”? An individual coinage? Coinages like boondoggle, Lilliputian, and quark—dozens of them—also have a base. They are not akin to babies’ babbling.)

Precisely. Check out the rest of his article. It's extremely readable and very interesting.



  1. I loved the comment of Anatoly Liberman against the OED's use of "fanciful" (presumably to describe an 'amateur' etymologists opinion). But maybe "origin uncertain" is better than "origin unknown" - or would that term then have to be used for nearly every entry?

  2. Right--how do you get across the idea that an etymology is not all that likely, but still possible?

    I realized in rereading his piece that I left out the bit where the first written instance of the French usage was by Villon and meant 'to chicane', or trick. But we've only imported the noun and not the verb, which is puzzling.

  3. This is one of the words I've been trying to work into everyday vocabulary. I just like saying it. Maybe I might just have to resort to studying up on politics.

  4. Glenna, I'm pretty sure that the best way to learn about chicanery is to practice it. I wonder if there's a Chicanery for Dummies book out there yet.

  5. Shoot. And here I was thinking I had a corner on the market with that one.

  6. Although it's a word I haven't heard used in conversation for years, "legal chicanery" was a common phrase in the mid-20th century.

    Thank you for sharing such interesting links.

  7. I heard it used in some news interview just the other night, as a matter of fact.

    Yes, what I stumble across linkwise is turning out to be one of the more interesting aspects of writing this blog. Mr. Liberman is definitely a find.

  8. Seana

    In Formula 1 motor racing a chicane (sp?) is the bit in the track that is deliberately twisty.