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CANNY  adj  careful

This word is familiar in the sense of careful and the admonition to ‘ca canny’ urges caution. It also means shrewd, particularly with money. Walter Scott uses it as such in Waverley (1814):


“He recommended that some canny hand should be sent up the glens, to make the best bargain he could”.


A further meaning is skilful and this quotation from W. T. Dennison’s The Orcadian Sketchbook (1880) in no way implies caution:


“The officer wus canny eneuch at fencin’”.


Something or someone that is nae canny is ill-omened or unnatural. So, in W. D. Geddes’s Memorials of John Geddes 1797-1881, Cotties and his clan inspired dread being


“‘nae jist a’ thegither canny’, and report had it that they had tried strange ‘cantraips’ to obtain power over the invisible world”.


The canny-wife or canny-man was a good person to have around in such circumstances. They could effect miraculous cures like this revival of a collapsed horse described in Transactions of the Banffshire Field Club (1890):


“The ‘canny woman’ of the district was sent for. She then took hold of the lower corners of her apron and gave it a flap in the animal’s face. Up it jumped as fresh as if nothing had been the matter”.


The cannywife might also deliver babies. Canny people or animals are gentle, quiet, steady and kind. At the end of a hard day’s work it is fine to sit canny by the fire.

An expression from Angus is ‘He’s aff his canny seat’, meaning that he is being unexpectedly made to work harder, outside his comfort zone perhaps.

Canny is first used in 1592 by David Forster in a letter:


“Much better is it to have abiddin a cannie mercat, nor to have hazarded an old gloyd [a worn out horse]”.


It may come from the Older Scots noun ‘can’ meaning skill or knowledge.

Scots Word of the Week is written by Chris Robinson of Scottish Language Dictionaries

First Published 11th March 2013