People and words

It’s uncanny

It’s uncanny when a bank launches a promotion campaign for an ISA account aimed at “the canny saver” just after you’ve published an article about the word canny.

You’d think that somebody’s ripping off your idea. But it was probably more like two people coming up with the same thought – what a lovely word, let’s see how we can use it. In any case, here’s a reproduction of my article.

How it started

One of the first recordings of canny dates from the late sixteenth century, when people in Scotland used it for shrewd, related to can and meaning knowing how to. Hence, a canny lawyer. In England people later adopted this use as in a canny Scot – a thrifty guy with an eye for a chance to make money.

It also became a loaded term, meaning cunning or wily. But then something funny happened.

What changed

During the early eighteenth century canny also came to convey nice or good in northern English. From there it was only a small step to she’s a right canny lass – an attractive girl.

Canny lassies
Canny lassies

Further north, the Scottish poet Robert Burns (1759–1796) used it to express quiet or snug and cozy: But gie me a cannie hour at e’en / My arms about my dearie, O (from Green Grow The Rashes).

New uses

In the late nineteenth century Scots started to ca’canny, but that was going slow at work. There are more uses of canny, one of them too vulgar too mention.

Confusion arises when people in Scotland say cannot. It can sound very much like canny, as in: you cannae shove your grannie aff a bus.

Meanwhile, uncanny means strange, especially in an unsettling way with a hint of malice. Like when you feel that someone’s watching you – it makes you uncomfortable.