Canny, like.
February 24, 2015 3:46 PM   Subscribe

A young baby in our family is very alert, active and friendly and my sister and myself both found ourselves referring to her as 'canny'. But when we were asked what the word means, and why it applies to her, we couldn't quite explain it. Is there any one on here, probably from the North of England, who could have a go at explaining 'canny', meaning and usage (and possibly derivation?)
posted by glasseyes to Writing & Language (15 answers total) 1 user marked this as a favorite
From the Online Etymology Dictionary:

1630s, Scottish and northern English formation from can (v.1) in its sense of "know how to," + -y (2). "Knowing," hence, "careful." A doublet of cunning that flowed into distinct senses. Often used superciliously of Scots by their southern neighbors (and their American cousins).

The Canny Scot is so well known as scarcely to require description. He carries caution, cunning, and selfishness to excess. Deceitful when a purpose is to be accomplished, he is not habitually deceitful. One thing he never loses sight of--his own interest. But of his own interest he is not the most enlightened judge. ["The Natural History of Scotsmen," in "The Argosy," December 1865]

posted by Ruthless Bunny at 3:48 PM on February 24, 2015 [1 favorite]

I'm from the North of England. "Canny" just means "aware" or "knowing". It comes from "can", as in "to know or be able to".

(PS Awesome tags.)
posted by Thing at 3:54 PM on February 24, 2015 [4 favorites]

Best answer: You might have heard the lullaby "Bonny at morn" (which doesn't help explain what canny is supposed to mean, but does associate it with a baby in my head):

Canny at night, bonny at morn
Thou's ower lang in thy bed
Bonny at morn

posted by henuani at 4:07 PM on February 24, 2015 [2 favorites]

I'd guess it's also 'ken', as in 'do you ken (know)'.
posted by Sebmojo at 4:13 PM on February 24, 2015

Response by poster: I suppose I'm wondering what particular nuance of the meaning had us both applying it to a baby, rather than, I don't know, a used car salesman? There's very few people I would call canny, and I think they would have had to have done something not just clever or knowing but extra, somehow. It's that extra that I'm after and I don't know what it is.
posted by glasseyes at 4:19 PM on February 24, 2015

Maybe you're vibing on a "wisdom beyond years" or "old soul" or precociousness that is easier to find in a baby (feels more unusual for the age) than adults?
posted by cdefgfeadgagfe at 5:10 PM on February 24, 2015 [3 favorites]

I think, in relation to a baby, it would basically mean "smart" or "quick to learn".

Disclaimer: I'm not Scottish or from any part of the UK or Ireland, but I'm Australian, and know lots of Scots and Irishfolk.
posted by Diag at 5:15 PM on February 24, 2015

Best answer: Canny implies a certain unexpected grasp of situations. A surprising intelligence or foresight. Children and animals are often canny, adults not so often unless you wouldn't expect them to be ex. someone lacking a education, or raised in a convent or something.
posted by fshgrl at 5:20 PM on February 24, 2015 [5 favorites]

Response by poster: I think fshgrl has it! Because the situations I was thinking of were like those folktales when some rather useless boy defeats a houseful of demons or something. Thanks everybody, much appreciated.

What a lovely lullaby. Something in my eye - she is bonny...and she does hinder her mother and the rest of us, getting into everything.
posted by glasseyes at 5:36 PM on February 24, 2015 [4 favorites]

Canny was my nickname as a wee Scottish child. It was originally from my mispronunciation of my name, but it stuck because people said I seemed to understand things you would assume would go over a kid's head.
posted by atropos at 5:54 PM on February 24, 2015 [1 favorite]

Response by poster: I'd never actually realised the words 'can', able, and 'ken', understand, were springing from the same concept. Well done Metafilter, you get me?
posted by glasseyes at 6:03 PM on February 24, 2015 [2 favorites]

Best answer: I'd always associate 'canny' as applied to young children, especially extended to 'canny bairn', to mean bright, lively, pleasant, aware. It's a presence. 'Aww, she's such a canny bairn.' 'Aye, dead canny, like. Good as gold.'

There are very subtle distinctions between talking about a canny bairn, a canny young lad/lass, or a canny auld feller. As you get older, canny certainly gets more associated with cunning and caution ('canny bugger, him, I'll tell yers.') but In other contexts, it can actually mean something close to the opposite: sincerity, openness, guilelessness.

That's just my native corner of northeast England, and I know that it's slightly different for Geordies and Scots.
posted by holgate at 10:10 PM on February 24, 2015 [3 favorites]

Best answer: There's also a mostly obsolete meaning "Supernaturally wise, endowed with occult or magical power" (possibly because of its associated derivation with "cunning", which originally had to do with those who had supernatural power) which I think is really interesting given the current meaning of "uncanny". Which, incidentally, also has meanings that an uncanny person is malicious, untrustworthy or unreliable - which the supernatural was also considered to be. I know this isn't what you asked but I think it's interesting anyhow.
posted by Athanassiel at 10:51 PM on February 24, 2015 [2 favorites]

Agreeing with Winterhill, the meaning of canny from Geordie speakers is definitely different from the Scottish/general use.

I have mostly heard it to describe someone who is generally good, nice friendly etc - the closest equivalent I can think of is sound (as in "sound as a pound") to used describe a person in the South East of England.

Googling canny with Geordie gets lots of results that match my experience.
posted by *becca* at 7:56 AM on February 25, 2015

Response by poster: Aye, gan canny, Mefites. If I'm asked again I'm leaning towards saying "Properly in touch with your native intelligence" as an explanation, which kind of covers the baby issue and the (uncanny) intuition issue, as well as the intelligence thing.

"Canny lass" - you wouldn't expect her to be dull, would you? And you'd expect her to have her head screwed on the right way, and to be good at things, same as a "canny lad".

It's a presence. Yes, thank you! You put your finger on it. A presence that does actually change with the age and status of the subject.
posted by glasseyes at 8:13 AM on February 25, 2015

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