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Chicanery

Pronounced /ʃɪˈkeɪnərɪ/Help with IPA

Still a common word, you may find it about equally in reports of sporting trickery and financial double-dealing:

Chicanery is not always discovered and punished, but the NFL spends millions in attempted enforcement of the public’s trust and then looks the other way after a team turns its back on ticket-buyers and league partners by refusing to put its reasonably best product on the field.

New York Post, 2 Jan 2010.

There’s another association with sport that hardly anybody makes. When a racing driver navigates a chicane, etymologically he’s on the same track as a trickster.

Both words can be traced to a set of French terms that includes chicaner, to make a fuss or squabble, chicanerie, a squabble, and chicane, legal quibbling or delaying tactics. Chicanerie seems to have been borrowed to fill a void in English — at least, John Evelyn regretted in a letter in 1665 that we had no word that fully expressed the sense of the French. He seemed not to know that Sir Thomas Overbury had already borrowed it half a century before, suggesting that it was only after Evelyn’s time that it became at all common.

Where the French words come from is uncertain. Dictionary makers used to think that they derived from a Greek verb meaning to play a game with sticks, something like golf or polo; this may be based on a Persian word, chaugan or chugan, which is the mallet in a polo-like game. But this idea has lost support because no chain of evidence exists to link the French with the Greek. Instead, modern etymologists point to an ancient French onomatopoeic word rather like tchik. This indicated pettiness and gave rise to several words, including chiche, mean or miserly. In the case of chicaner, it may have been crossed with ricaner, which now means to snigger but which used to mean “bray”.

Page created 13 Feb. 2010

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Last modified: 13 February 2010.