Words with dark roots

Since Memorial Day marks the unofficial beginning of summer, let’s see some “shenanigans” or “skulduggery” from you “mischievous” “rascals” or “wags.”

Oh, were you offended by any of those terms (or their spellings)? After all, at one time, all of those words carried negative meanings.

Let’s start with the most mysterious one, “shenanigans.” No one knows exactly where it comes from, except that it seems to have originated in California in the mid-1800s. The World Wide Words blog says it may have its origins in the Gold Rush, from Irish workers, or maybe East Anglicans, or Germans, all of whom were looking to strike it rich in California. The singular “shenanigan” is rare, and it’s also been spelled “shenanegans,” “shenannegans,” and shenanikins,” among other ways.

Though many think of “shenanigans” as harmless pranks or behavior, most dictionary definitions give them a slightly evil cast. Webster’s New World College Dictionary, the one used by the Associated Press and many news organizations, defines “shenanigans” as “trickery; mischief,” “treacherous or deceitful tricks,” and “playful or mischievous tricks.” The 1949 edition of Webster’s New Collegiate Dictionary lists only one definition: “Trickery.” You can see how it’s been softened.

A similar softening has not occurred with “skulduggery,” which has nothing to do with skulls or digging them up. The Oxford English Dictionary says it comes from a word that first appeared in the early 1700s, “sculduddery,” which meant “obscene” or “an obscenity.”

The OED says the modern “skulduggery” traces to the United States in 1867, when it meant “[u]nderhand dealing, roguish intrigue or machination, trickery.” WNW, which says the word has Scottish roots, calls it “informal” and defines it as “sneaky, dishonest behavior” or “trickery.” Many people use it more lightheartedly, to mean something closer to “hanky-panky” than “underhandedness.”

Sign up for CJR's daily email

WNW lists “skullduggery” as a second spelling, preferring one “l,” and most other dictionaries call “skullduggery” a variant spelling. But the double-l version appears almost twice as often in Nexis. Interestingly, as of this writing, “skulduggery” was in the top 10 percent of words being looked up at merriam-webster.com, and was “a fast mover: this word increased significantly in lookups over the past seven days.”

“Mischievous” has dark roots as well, going back to the 1300s. The OED says its original meaning, applied to an event, was “unfortunate, calamitous, disastrous”; applied to a person, it meant “miserable, needy, poverty-stricken.” By the 1600s, the usage had softened to “characterized by acts of childish naughtiness or petty annoyance,” and by 1760, it had turned positive: “charmingly roguish; playful, teasing.”

WNW still lists the negative, defining “mischievous” as “injurious; harmful,” “prankish; teasing; full of tricks” and “inclined to annoy or vex with playful tricks; naughty,” said especially of a child. Today, the connotation of “mischievous” is more playful than harmful.

“Mischievous” is pronounced “MISS-che-vuss”; the misspelling “mischievious” and accompanying mispronunciation “miss-CHEE-vee-us” dates to at least the 16th century, M-W says. It’s still considered wrong.

When Elmer Fudd called Bugs Bunny “You wascally wabbit,” he was using “rascal” the way most people do now: “a scoundrel; rogue; scamp: now usually used jokingly or affectionately, as of a mischievous child,” as WNW says.

But “rascal” first appeared in the late 1300s, the OED says, to mean “people forming the lowest social class; the common people; the rabble.” Later it came to mean “an unprincipled or dishonest person; a rogue, a scoundrel.” Even as it was being used this way, by 1600 it had also come to refer to “a mischievous or cheeky person,” and was frequently “a playful or affectionate term of reproof.” That one perfectly fits Elmer and Bugs.

Finally, we have “wags.” Today, “waggish” means “playfully mischievous.” It has a positive spin; after all, a dog “wagging” its tail is a happy dog. We’ll also refer to someone who gossips as “a wag,” which has a darker cast. The derivation of “wag,” the OED says, may trace to a verb in the 1200s that meant “to agitate.” So someone “wagging” a tongue may be out to stir things up.

The great thing about all these terms is that they are Janus words: You can use them the dark way, and you would have plausible deniability if you were accused of being nasty.

That’s all, folks.

Has America ever needed a media watchdog more than now? Help us by joining CJR today.

Merrill Perlman managed copy desks across the newsroom at The New York Times, where she worked for 25 years. Follow her on Twitter at @meperl.