We use cookies to enhance your experience on our website. By continuing to use our website, you are agreeing to our use of cookies. You can change your cookie settings at any time. Find out moreJump to Main NavigationJump to Content
  • Text size: A
  • A

canny, adj. and adv.

U.S. Hear pronunciation/ˈkæni/
Forms:  1600s– canny; also Scottish pre-1700 1700s– cannie, 1700s canie, 1700s kannie, 1700s kanny, 1700s kany; English regional (chiefly northern) 1700s kony, 1700s–1900s conny, 1800s konny; Irish English (northern) 1800s– cawney, 1900s– conny, 1900s– kenny. (Show Less)
Frequency (in current use):  Show frequency band information
Origin: Formed within English, by derivation. Etymons: can v.1, can n.2, -y suffix1.
Etymology: Probably partly < can v.1 + -y suffix1,
and partly < can n.2 + -y suffix1
Compare earlier cunning adj.   and slightly later uncanny adj.   With use as adverb compare cannily adv.
Compare Old Icelandic kunnigr   skilled in magic art, Swedish kunnig   skilled, capable, apt (17th cent. in this sense; already in Old Swedish as kunnogher  , konnogher   in sense ‘known’), and also the parallels in other Germanic languages cited at couthie adj.
Originally Scottish, English regional (northern), and Irish English (northern).
 A. adj.

 a. Knowing, wise; judicious, prudent; wary, cautious.

1581   [implied in: N. Burne Disput. Headdis of Relig. xviii. f. 62v   Frere Martine Lauter..passed mair cannelie to vorke. (at cannily adv.)].
1596   J. Dalrymple tr. J. Leslie Hist. Scotl. (1888) I. 108   [He] quha appeiris to be enduet wt the best jugement, and to haue the counsel maist cunning, cumlie, and cannie.
1637   S. Rutherford Lett. (1863) I. lxxxiii. 212   Men's canny wisdom, who, in this storm, take the nearest shore and go to the lee and calm side of the Gospel.
1645   R. Baillie Let. 8 July (1841) II. 296   The Parliament is wyse to make, in a canny and safe way, a wholsome purgation.
1699   Proper Project for Scotl. 77   Is there none to..quench the Fire of Gods wrath..which will laugh at, and burn up all our Carnal Policys, Canny Prudence, and basely overstreached and wrested Moderation?
a1758   A. Ramsay Poems (1800) II. 256   Ye gales that..please the canny boatman.
1901   Recreation May 285/1   Behind his topaz blinkers resides a canny intellect and the power of seeing things which neither you nor I perceive or understand.
1980   J. Michener Covenant 704   He was..bewildered by the flood of ideas that had been coming at him from his own observations, the canny wisdom of his father and the lessons from the serious books.
2016   D. Kaufman Some Enchanted Evenings 269   Tuft's canny intelligence and compassionate humor inform many of her letters.

1581—2016(Hide quotations)


 b. Thrifty, careful, frugal.Sometimes used by others of Scottish people to characterize a quality regarded as particularly Scottish.

1725   A. Ramsay Gentle Shepherd i. ii   Whate'er he wins, I'll guide with canny care.
c1800   Maxim   ‘Be canny with the sugar!’
1866   W. D. Howells Venetian Life 267   The number..and cost of the dishes were carefully regulated by the canny Republic's laws.
1872   Spectator 7 Sept. 1129   A businesslike, thrifty, canny, constitutional government.
1921   Good Furnit. Mag. Aug. 65/2   Perhaps the reason is the same that makes the Scotch such a canny, thrifty folk. If they dinna spend it, they hae it.
1981   Bk. Digest Mar. 145   These canny individuals were actually aware..that every dollar retained and not paid out in taxes would continue to multiply if properly invested.
2010   A. Urquhart Forgotten Highlander 270   No frugal and canny Scot was telling these starving boys to watch what they ate.

1725—2010(Hide quotations)


 c. Cautious and careful in worldly or business matters; worldly-wise, shrewd.Often used by others of Scottish people, in earlier use sometimes disparagingly, perhaps after Scott's usage in quot. 1816.

1816   W. Scott Antiquary III. ix. 192   ‘If ye'll let me hear the question,’ said Edie, with the caution of a canny Scotchman, ‘I'll tell you whether I'll answer it or no.’
1859   C. M. Yonge Cameos lii, in Monthly Packet Aug. 120   Starving out the English, as the canny Scot had so often done.
1878   M. L. Holbrook Hygiene Brain 53   As they say in canny Scotland.
1913   L. V. Kelly Range Men 71   Canny men and good traders, built posts in the great inland.
1954   A. Seton Katherine ii. xii. 211   Jankin was..canny enough to haggle with fishermen at the dock.
1987   P. Wright & P. Greengrass Spycatcher vi. 73   In fact, the intelligence gathered was worthless. Khrushchev was far too canny a bird to discuss anything of value in a hotel room.
2017   Liverpool Echo (Nexis) 15 June 11   His business acumen is second to none. He is, indeed, a canny Scot.

1816—2017(Hide quotations)


 a. Scottish. In accordance with what is right or natural; safe; spec. safe to be involved with. Chiefly in negative constructions. Cf. uncanny adj. 4.In quot. 1795: safe from supernatural power.

1592   D. Forster Let. 9 Dec. in D. Calderwood Hist. Kirk of Scotl. (1844) V. 204   Muche better is it to have abiddin a cannie mercat, nor to have hazarded an old gloyd, which might have stammered, and putt him in hazard.
1718   A. Ramsay Christ's-kirk on Green iii. 25   Word gae'd, she was na kanny.
1795   J. Sinclair Statist. Acct. Scotl. XVI. 122   This is done with a view to prevent skaith, if it should happen that the person is not cany.
1829   W. Scott Lett. Demonol. v. 161   Which are not supposed to be themselves altogether canny, or safe to have concern with.
1876   S. R. Whitehead Daft Davie 270   Her that was now so quiet and pensy to try such a wild kind o' freit seemed to strike us all as something no canny.
1906   N. Munro Malingerer in Vital Spark iii. 15   ‘A wife's the very thing for you,’ he would urge; ‘it's no' canny, a man as delicate as you to be having nobody to depend on.’
1934   ‘L. G. Gibbon’ Grey Granite ii. 87   Och, this Communism stuff's not canny, I tell you, it's just a religion though the Reds say it's not and make out that they don't believe in God.
1969   G. Friel Grace & Miss Partridge ii. 23   There's naebody mair aware nor me about the dangers of Roming Catholic fallacies. But I must say I still canny agree with this idea of predestination. It's no canny.
2006   J. Robertson Test. Gideon Mack (2007) xliv. 350   He was polite enough,..but there was something no canny aboot him.

1592—2006(Hide quotations)


 b. Chiefly Scottish. Fortunate, lucky, prosperous.Quot. 2015   may be a use of, or be influenced by, sense A. 4.

a1665   W. Guthrie Heads of Serm. preached at Finnick (1680) 57   In truth that was a canny gate that they took, for..they took the ready way and the shortest cut, that was an happy luck.
1688   in H. Paton Reg. Privy Council Scotl. (1932) 3rd Ser. XIII. 247   You said they had not prayed soe much till they sau your cannie face.
1715   A. Pennecuik Curious Coll. Scotish Poems in Geogr., Hist. Descr. Tweeddale App. 62   Farewel old Calins, Kannie all thy Life.
1720   A. Ramsay Poems 360   Whaever by his kanny Fate Is Master of a good Estate.
1822   J. Galt Provost 118   I, however, took a canny opportunity of remarking to old Mr Dinledoup, the English teacher, that this castle-building scheme of an academy would cause great changes.
1900   H. Maxwell Chevalier of Splendid Crest x. 144   By the rood but it was a canny chance, for had this gentleman been later on the scene by the saying of a paternoster, you and I would have fed the scald crows, my master.
2015   Christian Sci. Monitor (Nexis) 3 Aug.   Sometimes there are days of boring chop. And sometimes, by canny luck and skill, they [sc. surfers] catch a transcendent wave.

a1665—2015(Hide quotations)


3. Scottish. Wily, sly, cunning. Obsolete.

1628   D. Calderwood Pastor & Prelate 66   Sommes of money giuen unto them..sometimes by people who would be at a good Minister, and ordinarily by the cannie friends of the intrant, who can finde no entrie but by a golden port.
1644   R. Baillie Let. 25 Oct. (1841) II. 236   Mr. Marshall..by canny convoyance, got a sub-committee nominate according to his mind.—Vines, Herle, &c...seeing us excluded by Marshal's cunning, would not joyne.
1794   J. Ritson Sc. Songs I. 269   Well does the canny kimmer ken, They gar the scuds gae glibber down.

1628—1794(Hide quotations)


 4. Skilful, clever, dexterous. In earlier use chiefly Scottish.

1628   W. Folkingham Panala Medica 4   But let a neat hous-wife, or cannie Ale wright, haue the handling of..Malt, and you shall find, and will confesse, there is Art and Dexterity in this common businesse of Brewing.
1768   A. Ross Fortunate Shepherdess i. 9   [They] did wi' care the canny knack impart, Unto their bairns.
1790   A. Shirrefs Poems 266   A skilly wife, our parish howdy, Wha did her jobs sae freely canny.
1829   ‘M. Dods’ Cook & Housewife's Man. (ed. 4) ii. iii. 117   The cottage cookery of Scotland is much superior to that of their neighbours, from their canny skill in the potage, and the use of roots and vegetables.
1888   Dial Nov. 157/2   The new work of Mr. Arnold, now before us, is another monument erected by his canny hands to the same truth.
1922   C. S. Bailey Flint xv. 194   Cunningly carved of wood or woven with canny skill from corn husks, these masks had demoniac features, gaping mouths and tongues.
1978   J. A. Michener Chesapeake 326   And now the canny builder wrestled with those problems which had agitated the most ancient shipwrights.
2016   D. E. Carroll Pancho 98   The canny craftsman was at this moment punching holes in a fine broad-banded belt, the tip of his tongue slipped out with concentration.

1628—2016(Hide quotations)


 a. Chiefly English regional (north-eastern). Pleasant, nice, agreeable; neat, attractive, comely; good, worthy, satisfactory. Often a general epithet of approbation or satisfaction, as in Canny Newcastle, the Canny Town, etc. Although now largely associated with north-east England, this sense, especially in earlier use, is also attested elsewhere in northern England and in Scots.

1643   Pindar of Wakefield sig. A2   I was sare flade thou wert gane from the canny City of London to leuke abrade for better warke, whilke I trow will be far warse than to stay at hame.
1726   in R. Fleming Fulfilling Script. (ed. 5) sig. *a2 (Table Sc. Phr.)   Canny, good humored.
1795   J. Sinclair Statist. Acct. Scotl. XIV. 429   The word canny is much in use here, as well as on the other side the border, and denotes praise. A canny person, or thing; a good sort of person.
1802   D. Wordsworth Grasmere Jrnls. 27 Jan. (1991) 59   I was surprized to see the youngest child amongst the rest of them running about by itself with a canny round fat face, & rosy cheeks.
1821   A. Wheeler Westmorland Dial. (ed. 3) 99   Saa yee awt else et wur conny while yee stayd?
1875   F. K. Robinson Gloss. Words Whitby   Conny, seemly: ‘she's conny beeath to feeace an te follow.’
1888   L. A. Smith Music of Waters 107   The local song of Newcastle-upon-Tyne, ‘The Keel Row’..is truly the national anthem of the ‘Canny Toon’.
1918   I. Gurney Let. 22 Apr. (1991) 423   Which does not brighten canny Newcassel.
1976   Observer 22 Aug. 5 (advt.)    Wor lad's havvin a canny taime doon L'ndn on hes honymune.
1992   G. M. Fraser Quartered Safe out Here 53   The ritual was complete when Grandarse had sipped, appraised, and exclaimed, ‘Eh, Christ, thoo brews a canny cup, Jock!’
2001   C. Glazebrook Madolescents xx. 175   Don't get the wrong idea, you're dead canny. It's just that I've thought about it a bit and I'd rather we didn't, you know—shag.

1643—2001(Hide quotations)


 b. English regional (northern). Of amount, distance, time, etc.: considerable, fair.

1805   R. Anderson Ballads in Cumberland Dial. 30   Tom Linton was bworn till a brave canny fortune.
1868   J. C. Atkinson Gloss. Cleveland Dial. 116   That farm cost a conny lot o' brass.
1871   J. Richardson Cummerland Talk (1886) 1st Ser. 12   We pestit on a canny while.
1928   A. E. Pease Dict. Dial. N. Riding Yorks. 95/2   Ah wez wiv her a canny piece afore she said owt.
1953   Sunday Times 27 Oct.   It goes a canny distance, sir, on only a canny bit of petrol.
2007   Independent 1 June 20/4   As a Geordie might say, £460,000 is a ‘canny load of chink.’

1805—2007(Hide quotations)


 6. Chiefly Scottish. Quiet, easy; snug, comfortable; pleasant, cosy.

1737   A. Ramsay in Gentleman's Mag. Aug. 507/2   Edge me into some canny post, With the good liking of our king.
1786   R. Burns Poems 74   Canie, in some cozie place, They close the day.
1822   A. Balfour Farmers' Three Daughters I. xi.   Will education had you warm in your bed, or canny at your ain fireside?
1871   J. Smith Jenny Blair's Maunderings (ed. 2) 69   I wadna cared sae muckle had it been dune in a quiet, canny corner; for although I'm an auld wife, I'll no deny I can tak' a bit cheeper as weel as ony body.
1978   A. Fenton Island Blackhouse 40   This was not considered a canny place to be at night.
2014   Times (Nexis) 30 Aug.   There are four categories of room: ‘cosy’, ‘canny’, ‘champion’ and suites.

1737—2014(Hide quotations)


 a. Chiefly Scottish. Gentle, quiet, calm, steady; careful and cautious in motion or action; free from commotion or agitation.

1762   J. Brown Let. 3 Nov. in T. L. Kington-Oliphant Jacobite Lairds Gask (1870) (modernized text) 331   In the mean time let him sit straight and turn in his toes, and if the horse is canny, trotting up & down without stirops will give him a firm seat.
1786   R. Burns Poems & Songs (1968) I. 166   Hamely, tawie, quiet and cannie.
1814   W. Scott Waverley III. xiii. 171   The plaids [sc. Highlanders] were gay canny, and did not do so much mischief.  View more context for this quotation
1820   R. Mudie Glenfergus II. xxiii. 341   The canniest hand about a sick bed.
1861   E. B. Ramsay Reminisc. Sc. Life (ed. 18) v. 125   Mounted upon a Highland pony as being the canniest baste.
1911   Anthropol. Papers Amer. Mus. Nat. Hist. 9 108   The man made the bear then because he was nice and quiet and canny.
1928   A. E. Pease Dict. Dial. N. Riding Yorks. 19/2   Be canny wi' t'aud meer.
2009   M. Stewart Dae yeh mind thon Time? (Electronic ed.)    This Alsatian must have been the canniest animal alive, for I can remember running around the back green holding on to his tail and him belting around like an idiot, but seldom did he snap.

1762—2009(Hide quotations)


 b. Of humour: quiet, artful, subtle.

1874   J. R. Green Short Hist. Eng. People viii. §2. 464   His canny humour lights up the political and theological controversies of the time.
1921   Overland Monthly Aug. 40   He has a homely wisdom of his own and a canny sense of humor and a power of language that is surprising.
2013   Toronto Star (Nexis) 5 May e2   Even Bob Dylan's ‘Subterranean Homesick Blues’ was delivered with a portentous gravitas that totally missed the canny sense of humour at work in the original.

1874—2013(Hide quotations)


 8. Supernaturally wise, endowed with occult or magical power. Now rare.Quot. 2012   may simply be a contextual use of sense A. 1a.

1768   A. Ross Rock & Wee Pickle Tow in Fortunate Shepherdess 130   She was ne'er ca'd chancy, but canny and slim.
1816   W. Scott Black Dwarf iv, in Tales of my Landlord 1st Ser. I. 89   His popular epithet soon came to be Canny Elshie, or the Wise Wight of Mucklestane-Moor.
c1880   D. Grant in W. Walker Bards of Bon-accord (1886) 584   ‘Why don't you trade for a wind,’ asked he, ‘With our neighbour Canny Jess?’
1909   V. D. Hyde-Vogl In Ye Olde Colonie i. iii in Echoes & Prophecies 107   You must have a savory stew to greet the nostrils of the canny crew.
2012   BusinessWorld (Philippines) (Nexis) 15 Aug. s2   Dorothy Gale..is blown away by tornado to the Land of Oz,..all the while skirting perils such as winged monkeys, and the canny Wicked Witch of the West.

1768—2012(Hide quotations)

 B. adv.
 1. Chiefly Scottish.

 a. Gently, quietly; carefully, skilfully.

1786   R. Burns Poems 34   Speak her fair, An' straik her canny wi' the hair.
1804   W. Tarras Poems 82   The troddlin burnie i' the glen Glides cannie o'er its peebles sma'.
1816   W. Scott Antiquary I. vii. 162   Canny now, lad—canny now—tak tent and tak time.
1895   Badminton Mag. Nov. 525   We stoop a little and go canny through the ‘bealloch’ or pass at the top.
1945   S. O' Casey Drums Under Windows in Autobiogr. (1980) I. 442   The living children need this money more than the dead father. I'd go canny with it if I were you.
1985   C. Rush Twelvemonth & Day ii. 44   ‘Lay it on canny, for pity's sake,’ said my grandfather. ‘It'll take his skin off like that.’
2012   J. Fagan Panopticon (2013) xix. 208   You're not at that bit yet. Go canny, ay; now, turn around tae face each other.

1786—2012(Hide quotations)


 b. to call canny (usually as to ca' canny ): to go or proceed cautiously, quietly, gently, warily, or with care. Only in the infinitive and imperative. Cf. call v. 27b, ca'canny n.

1814   C. I. Johnstone Saxon & Gaël III. 73   ‘Chaps like them suld ca' canny.’
1823   J. Galt Entail I. xxvii. 239   But, Charlie and Bell, ca' canny.
1868   Fraser's Mag. Aug. 179/1   Now, gudewife and the lave of you women,..you'll just call canny and you'll call no names.
1907   ‘Artifex’ & ‘Opifex’ Causes of Decay in Brit. Industry iv. 64   A diminishing output is a great temptation to workmen to work slowly, or ‘call canny’.
1962   Times 28 Apr. 9/5   They had better ca' canny.
2008   J. Kelman Kieron Smith, Boy (2009) 390   Some were real fighters and ye could spot them a mile away, so then ye had to caw canny.

1814—2008(Hide quotations)


 2. English regional (northern). As an intensifier: very, considerably; quite, fairly.

1867   J. P. Morris Siege o' Brou'ton Lancs. Gloss. 3   That's a conny lang time sen now.
1974   D. Douglass Pit Talk in County Durham 39   Canny good... Not too bad.
1994   Fast Forward 26 Oct. 4/1   At primary school, we used to have Halloween parties every year. They were canny good.
2001   C. Glazebrook Madolescents 231   He must be canny knackered after all that action—I'm so whacked I could sleep for a fortnight.

1867—2001(Hide quotations)




  canny moment   n. Scottish now rare the moment of childbirth.

1753   I. Strange Let. in Examiner 17 Nov.   My dear Andrew,—I'm just waiting for the happy hour, the sharp shower, and the canny moment, the account of which will come to you in course.
1815   W. Scott Guy Mannering I. i. 11   Ye'll be come in the canny moment I'm thinking.
1939   Scotsman 16 June 16/6   The moment of birth used to be known in Scotland as the ‘canny moment’, and one of the many names of the midwife was the ‘canny-wife’.

1753—1939(Hide quotations)


  canny wife   n. now historical and rare a midwife; cf. wise woman n. 2.  [Compare French sage-femme  , in the same sense (13th cent. in Old French), and earlier sage woman n. at sage adj. and n.2 Compounds 2.]

1751   W. Forbes Dominie Deposed (ed. 10) ii. 12   The canny Wives came there conveen'd, All in a Whirl.
1824   A. Crawford Tales of my Grandmother (1825) I. 180   Yonder's the canny wife's bield!
1939   Scotsman 16 June 16/6   The moment of birth used to be known in Scotland as the ‘canny moment’, and one of the many names of the midwife was the ‘canny-wife’.

1751—1939(Hide quotations)


This entry has been updated (OED Third Edition, September 2018; most recently modified version published online June 2021).

In this entry: