Champion the Wonder Word – Frank McNally on the murky origins and global popularity of the word ‘shenanigans’

‘The Great Match Against Time’

Around the time that a certain football tournament was reaching its climax last month, a man named Lev Parikian launched a “World Cup of Random English Words” on Twitter.

It was the product of an idle moment, inspired by his fascination with the term “plinth”. But it took off and, fanned by regular polls in which the public were asked to vote, expanded to include 4,096 words eventually.

As in Qatar, there was no obvious Irish representation among the qualifiers: a possible exception being the noun “shenanigans”, which like Declan Rice, sounded like one of ours.

Unlike Rice, however, who was qualified to play for Ireland – and did – before switching allegiance, shenanigans is of unknown parentage.


Even so, I found myself rooting for it as the tournament progressed and grew increasingly excited as it emerged from groups including “Hamlet” in Round 1 and “concatenation” in Round 2, to reach the quarter finals.

There, it trounced “flibbertigibbet” (a fancy-dan word, popular with the kinds of people who liked David Ginola, but useless under pressure). Then, in a game many considered the real final, it edged a 3,300-vote thriller against the hard-tackling “bollocks”. The actual final was an anti-climax, by contrast, shenanigans seeing off “codswallop” by double scores.

In the wake of its triumph, and not for the first time, I found myself searching dictionaries for the roots of a word that looks at least as Irish as “hooligan”.

The latter is thought to have originated in the family name Ó hUallacháin, before the soft middle consonant – and the family’s manners – hardened in England (for whose football team they both declared eventually, to general relief back home).

One preposterous theory is that shenanigan similarly derives from a combined first and second name: Sean Hannigan. A more plausible etymology is the Irish word for “fox”, sionnach, which gives us the verb sionnachuigim (“I play the fox”), mentioned in Dinneen’s famous dictionary.

In support of this theory, “shenanigan” – now always a noun, invariably plural – used to be a verb in Hiberno-English. Hence Sean O’Casey’s The Plough and the Stars, wherein The Covey protests his indifference to womanising: “I’ve something else to do besides shinannickin’ afther Judies.”

But there are also English, French, German, and Spanish contenders for the word’s paternity. The Spanish “chanada”, for example, means “trick”, while an old East Anglian term, “nannicking”, is “playing the fool”.

It seems telling that “shenanigan” (in the singular) made its print debut in 1850s California, during the Gold Rush. And it may be doubly telling that one of its first appearances was in a story involving an Irishman, a chancer by the name of Jack Powers.

Born in 1827, Powers emigrated in childhood with his parents, first to New York, then to California as a volunteer in the Mexican-American war. He there became a superb horseman and professional gambler, before expanding into general banditry.

He was also a member of the San Francisco Society of Regulators, which sounds like him have an each-way bet on the law but was actually a gang of vigilantes opposed to immigration (of the Spanish-speaking kind, at least).

Typically, according to one admirer, even his horsemanship was irregular: “It has [...] this striking peculiarity, that it would never gallop straight forward towards any given point, but would advance in a sort-of sidelong canter, very pleasing to behold, but requiring great skill on the part of the rider to maintain his seat.”

Equestrian brilliance and trickery both featured in his best-known stunt: “The Great Match Against Time.”

Held at a racecourse in San Francisco in 1858, this saw him set a record time for covering 150 miles on horseback, under seven hours, using 24 mustangs and leaping from one to another without rest.

But a newspaper report of the feat noted that, around the 130-mile mark, he had also perpetrated a “small ‘shenanigan’.”

Sitting up in the saddle, he spat blood, which induced some observers to bet against him. In fact, according to the reporter, the only vessel he had ruptured was a “small sheep’s bladder” secreted on his person. Powers and his supporters were said to have made “a thousand dollars” from the event.

Soon afterwards, however, he was accused of complicity in the murders of two men. Notorious in California, he moved first to Mexico and later to the Arizona Territory, where he seemed to have given up banditry in favour of ranch-keeping.

It’s worth noting that Powers, like the s-word, had started out as a singular John A Power. He contained multitudes, clearly. But in the end, his brand of trickery may have been no match for the Hispanic kind. In October 1860, he was found murdered, presumably by his “vaqueros”, who had made off with all the livestock.