Sunday, February 2, 2014


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, 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.


  1. This comment has been removed by the author.

  2. My sense is that if your friend meant conniver as a compliment, she misused the word. What she may have intended was something like the Yiddish gonif (from the Hebrew ganav, or thief) which can mean someone clever, admirable so.

  3. Well, she is Jewish, so that may be. I have also thought that she may have conflated the word with "contriver".

    Anyway, there's no harm done, as we all knew exactly what she meant, regardless.

  4. She's Jewish, yet! " A shanda fur die goy!

    There's harm done only if some interested reader, not present at the dinner party and so unable to observe your friend and hear her vocal intonations, might think that the word indeed has that connotation of admiration.

    Here's a possibility: Maybe your friend was consciously (or subconsciously) translating gonif for an audience she thought might not understand Yiddish.

  5. Well, the interested reader should probably just read the whole blog post. And of course, I have named no name, and think it extremely unlikely that any of the parties involved will ever see it anyway.

  6. And I have always liked "connive." I think. Funny you should have heard the word on Eastenders. Without knowing why, and without ever having seen the show, I'd have said conniving had Cockney connotations.

  7. Yes, I was thinking and perhaps even hoping that it was some sort of slang, like Polari.

  8. The word has always sounded baroque, over the top, humorous to me. I would expect a character in a hard-boiled crime novel from the 1920s to use it, but not a character from the 1970s.

  9. I wrote the headline SLIPPIN’ AND SLIDIN’ at work last night for a story about the day’s slippery, slushy snowstorm, and then I remembered one verse of the song in question:

    “Oh, big conniver, nothin' but a jiver
    I done got hip to your jive
    Oh, big conniver, nothin' but a jiver
    I done got hip to your jive”

    Oh, and there's a very nice example of a wink around Page 420 of Red or Dead.
    Detectives Beyond Borders
    "Because Murder Is More Fun Away From Home"

  10. That's a great find, Peter. And I would say not from the 1920s.

    I think now we would more generally be likely to use the word collude for one aspect of its meaning, and plot or scheme for another

  11. Nope, not the 1920s.

    I like the sense that takes in looking the other way, or winking--to connive in, in other words.

  12. I'm not seeing your video link popping up here yet, but in any case, I knew the era of Slippin' and Slidin' but didn't remember Little Richard.

  13. Replies
    1. Works, although I got it through email anyway.

  14. Peter

    Far be it from me to correct your Yiddish, but I think macher seems a more appropriate word in this instance.

  15. What, you mean you think Little Richard should have sung: "Oh, big macher, nothing but a jiver"?

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  17. Or did you mean that Seana's friend was kvelling that her conniving son was a macher? A macher can be a conniver, of course, but conniving would be more characteristic of the qualities it takes to attain the status of macher, rather than defining macherhood itself.

    If your son was already a vice president or a chief resident, you might say: "He's macher!" But if you wanted to say that he's such a clever, resourceful fellow, a guy who knows how to take advantage of his chances, that he will one day be a vice president or a chief resident (and my guess is that this is what Seana's friend meant by "conniver"), you'd call him a kochleffel, a gonif, a bren, or even a momzer.

  18. Although I am well out of my depth with the definition s here, I will just say that my friend is the kind of guy that you want to have around if you want the cable company to not only come out, but give you a month's service on the house for your trouble. And maybe give you some mileage points on you airfare thrown into the deal.

  19. Peter

    I like Groucho Marx's definiton of a macher. A guy who literally got off the boat 20 minutes before you did but already knew all the angles...

  20. A macher would be a good one to have as your partner in The Amazing Race. then.

  21. Your friend sounds like the type of guy to whom one might apply any number of Yiddish words that connote in varying degrees cleverness, admiration, and amazement.

  22. Rolling of the eyes also happens with some degree of frequency.

  23. Rolling of the eyes, slapping of the forehead, and exasperated gazes toward the heavens. I know the feeling.

    I should not wear my heavy Byzantine-replica soldier's ring when reading the work of certain writers. I'm going to knock myself unconscious one of these days.