At a dinner party the other night, a friend was heard to say about her son, who was also in attendance, "He's the biggest conniver I know." Since the son is also a friend, and on the whole someone we both think highly of, I asked her to clarify her definition of a conniver. What she meant was someone who works the angles. Someone who knows where the deals are, and how to get them even when they're a little, shall we say, hard to find. She meant conniver as more or less a compliment.
It got me thinking about the word, as I wouldn't have used it to mean anything flattering. I think of the phrase "you conniving little (expletive deleted)". In fact, since I started this post, I happened to hear it used in just this sense on an old Eastenders episode I was watching, when one character said to another "Why you conniving little cow!" In this case, it was definitely not a compliment.
I realized then that I really didn't even have a sense of where the word came from--was it some kind of slang, or did it have a more conventional origin?
We shall see.
"Connive" seems to have accumulated various meanings over time, all somewhat related but not really the same. "Conniving" has come to take on one meaning of "scheming" as in the Eastenders example, but also, in a more benign sense, as in my friend's mother's usage. A little sneaky, might be her meaning, or, just on the right side of the moral line. But the word also and in an older sense means, "to secretly allow something immoral, harmful or illegal" to occur. In this sense it's more strongly related to collusion. It can have the implication, as the Free Dictionary has it, that one is feigning ignorance or giving tacit consent to some wrong. It can also mean, according to Merriam-Webster.com, to have a secret sympathy or a secret understanding about something shady.
That site and others link it to the word "wink", as in "to wink at something". This is because of the origin of the word. Connive is not slang, as I suspected, but is one of those old Latin through French derivations. Connivere meant, according to the Online Etymology Dictionary, "to wink at" and implicitly, "together". The "con-" beginning is that common "with" prefix, while the second part comes from a lost word related to "nictare", which means "to wink" or "to blink".
I find it interesting to think about the difference between wink and blink in this case. Because other dictionaries define connive as to close one's eyes to. To blink at the right moment. Both wink and blink carry a host of associations for us, but their connotations are somewhat different. So maybe the wide spectrum of meaning involved in conniving was there from the very start.
Not that I'm implying anything about President Putin, but that's a pretty good wink.