The Grammarphobia Blog

How canny are canines?

Q: Sometimes I feel as if my dog (a canine pet) is exceptionally canny. Is there any chance that the term “canny” has an etymological relationship to “canine”?

A: Daisy and Willy, our two Golden Retrievers, are pretty canny too, but the terms “canine” and “canny” aren’t related.

The word “canine” is derived from canis, Latin for “dog,” according to the Chambers Dictionary of Etymology, while “canny” ultimately comes from a now obsolete sense of the verb “can,” which once meant to know.

The Oxford English Dictionary indicates that “canine” entered English in the early 1600s as an adjective meaning doglike as well as an adjective describing pointed teeth.

It wasn’t until the 1800s that “canine” came to be a noun meaning a dog. Of course we already had a couple of common canine nouns, “dog” and “hound,” with roots dating back to the days of Old English.

The word “hound” (hund in Old English) first showed up in Beowulf, which may date from as early as 725, according to Chambers. The dictionary says it’s derived from the proto-Germanic root hundas.

John Ayto’s Dictionary of Word Origins notes that “hound” was the main word in English for a dog “until superseded around the 16th century by dog.”

Although “hound” now has a more specific sense in English, Ayto says, its relatives in other Germanic languages (hund in German, Swedish, and Danish, for example) still refer to a dog in general.

As for “dog,” Ayto describes it as “one of the celebrated mystery words of English etymology.”

He points out that “dog” appeared only once in Old English (spelled docgena), “but its use does not seem to have proliferated until the 13th century.”

“It has no known relatives of equal antiquity in other European languages, although several borrowed it in the 16th and 17th centuries for particular sorts of ‘dog,’ ” Ayto says.

In French, for example, a dogue is a mastiff, while in Swedish a dogg is a bulldog, according to Ayto.

Getting back to the other part of your question, “canny” first appeared in Scottish English in the 1600s, meaning knowing, prudent, cunning, or wily, according to citations in the OED.

The earliest example of the usage in the OED is from a 1637 letter by the Scottish theologian Samuel Rutherford: “Men’s canny wisdom, who, in this storm, take the nearest shore and go to the lee and calm side of the Gospel.”

The ultimate source of the word, Ayto says, is probably the “know” sense of the verb “can.” As he explains, “can” and “know” share the same Indo-European root: gn-.

“The underlying etymological meaning of can is thus ‘know’ or more specifically ‘come to know,’ which survived in English until comparatively recently,” he writes.

Ayto offers this relatively late example of “could” (the past of “can”) used in the sense of “knew” or “came to know,” from Ben Jonson’s 1632 comedy The Magnetick Lady: “She could the Bible in the holy tongue.”

Finally, we can’t discuss “canny” without mentioning “uncanny,” which has had many negative meanings over the years—malicious, careless, unreliable, untrustworthy.

The spooky sense can be traced to the late 18th century, when an “uncanny” person was someone “not quite safe to trust to, or have dealings with, as being associated with supernatural arts or powers,” the OED says.

By about 1850, Oxford says, the current meaning of “uncanny” was established: “Partaking of a supernatural character; mysterious, weird, uncomfortably strange or unfamiliar.”

So you might call the legendary hound of the Baskervilles an uncanny canine.

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