Vol 3 – No. 26 – April, 1889 – “Canny”

A word so familiar as to give the distinctive character to “canny Newcassel” seems to have little need of explanation. It is just one of those words, however, which has made its home here, but which is sadly misunderstood by outsiders. The patient John Ray heard it not; and we turn to look for it in vain among the “English words proper to the Northern Counties” in his little volume of 1691. It does not appear in the collection of Nathan Bailey, the quaint “Philologos” who thirty years later published his Dictionary, in which were included “The Dialects of our Different Countries.” When Dr. Johnson followed, in 1755, with his English Dictionary, he did not record it. We come down, therefore, to our own times before we find the modest word included in an English dictionary. If we turn up Dr. Ogilvie’s great work, “The Imperial Dictionary” of 1848, we do find the word. But this is not our own “canny.” It is “cautious; prudent; artful; crafty; wary; frugal,” &c. The Southern man accepts this rendering, and believes that our “canny man” means “cunning fellow.” This may be explained by the fact that “canny” does not appear in literature before the seventeenth century 1637 being the date of the earliest quotation of its use in Dr. Murray’s “New English Dictionary.” All the early references to it are found north of the Tweed, and the trans-Tuedian usage of the word justifies the Southern Englishman in understanding it” to denote qualities considered characteristically Scotch.”

In Northumberland, the word is of ancient currency, for it is part of the mother-tongue of the people. But the history, and the dialect which is part of the history, of this northernmost English county, show us how a folk, isolated at times from the rest of the kingdom have grown up by themselves in word and work. It is especially shown in this word, which among the people of Northumberland has developed a meaning far differing from a rendering that ascribes to it mere cunning, or craft, or wariness. Here “canny” is an embodiment of all that is kindly, good, and gentle. The highest compliment that can be paid to any person is to say that he or she is “canny.” As home expresses the English love of the fireside, so in Tyneside and Northumberland does “canny” express every home virtue. All that is good and lovable in man or woman is covered by the expression, “Eh, what a canny body!” A child appealing for help or protection always addresses his elder as “canny man.” “Please, canny man, gi’s a lift i’ yor cairt.” “O, canny man, O show me the way to Wallington.” What Northumberland bairn but has appealed, when punishment impended, “Please, canny man, it wesn’t me!” The fishwife who wishes to compliment her customer, says, “Noo, canny-hinney, see what yor buyin’.”

O, bonny Hobby Elliot,  

O, canny Hobby still,

O, bonny Hobby “Elliot,

Who lives at Harlow Hill.  

The word, says the Rev. John Hodgson, “refers as well to the beauty of form as of manners and morals, but most particularly is used to describe those mild and affectionate dispositions which render a person agreeable in the domestic state.

” Wor canny houses, duffit theek’d –

Wor canny wives within ’em,

Wor canny bairns, se chubby cheek’d,  

And sweet and clean yell find ’em;

Are a’ decked put in Sunday trim,  

To mense this great occasion.

– Thomas Wilson: “The Oilin’ o’ Dicky’s Wig,” 1826.

Gan wi’ me, like a canny lad.

– T. Wilson: “Pitman’s Pay,” 1826, pt. 1, ver. 71.

It has also the significations following:

Endeared –

How well we remember the canny bit shop!

– B. Gilchrist : “Song of Improvements,” 1835.

Modest –

To get us a canny bit leevin,  Aw kinds o’ fine sweetmeets we’ll sell.

– W. Midford : -‘Pitman’s Courtship.” 1818.

What canny little wegges we used ta ha ta pay!

– Geo. Chatt: ” Old Farmer,” 1866.

Orderly, neat –

Eh, lads, but it’s a bonny way!  

But what myest pleased wor Nanny,

Was seeing fogies, awd and gray,  

Paid just for keepin’t canny.

– T. Wilson: ” The Oilin’ o’ Dicky’s Wig.”

Careful –

“‘Be canny wi’ the sugar.”  

Canny is also used adverbially, as, “Canny, noo, canny!” or ” Gan canny!” that is, Go gently.

A, U, A, upon ma airm,  

A, U, A, thoo syun may lairn  

To say dada se canny.

– B. Nunn: “Sandgate Wife’s Nurse Song.’

This Northumberland word is just the simpler English term for what we should otherwise have to style in grandiloquent language the highest human virtues. Beneficence, benevolence, magnanimity are all summed up in the plainer word canniness. So strong is this that to say one is “no’ canny” is to say that he is simply unhuman.  When the traveller from the South experiences the congestion of traffic by which the lines to the Central Station at Newcastle are occasionally blocked, his train is suddenly pulled up, and he finds himself waiting on a viaduct. Below him there instantly gathers a promiscuous crowd of ragged bairns. From a dozen young throats is heard, in measured cadence, the chorus of a song, and from the guttural verse there comes up a constant ower-word. This, as it is heard over and over, is not an accusation of the Southern gentleman. He is not being called “a cautious, crafty fellow.” “Canny man” is really intended to convey the most touching appeal that the little hatless, shoeless, palpitating figure below can make to the better nature of his auditor, as he chaunts-

Hey, canny man, hoy a ha’penny oot!

Ye’ll see some fun, thor is ne doot;

Whorivvor ye gans, ye’ll heor ’em shoot,

Hey, canny man, hoy a ha’penny oot!


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