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Scottish National Dictionary (1700–)

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First published 1941 (SND Vol. II). Includes material from the 1976 and 2005 supplements.
This entry has not been updated since then but may contain minor corrections and revisions.

CANNY, CANNIE, Cawney, Kanni, Kanny, Kannie, Connie, adj. and adv. Also used in Eng. dials. [′kɑnɪ̢ Sc., but m.Sc. + ′k(:)n (Wilson Dials. c. Scot.) and Uls. + ′kɔnɪ̢, ′k(:)n]

I. adj.

1. Knowing, wise, shrewd; careful, cautious (Sh. 1914 Angus Gl., kanni; Uls.2 1929, connie). W. H. Patterson in Gl. Ant. and Dwn. (1880) gives the form cawney. Gen.Sc.Sc. 1814 Scott Waverley (1817) xv.:
He recommended that some canny hand should be sent up the glens, to make the best bargain he could.
Sc. 1999 Herald 6 Sep 21:
And the surprising thing is that the Maister, who is normally so canny with anything he buys and sells, has let some of it be uplifted by the merchants without having a clue what price he is going to get for it.
Cai. 1992 James Miller A Fine White Stoor 117:
Donald's Jamie poured two generous libations.
'Canny,' cried Jonah. 'I'll go aground if I take all that.'
'Husht wi ye. It's new year. Your health, boys.'
m.Sc. 1998 Lillias Forbes Turning a Fresh Eye 18:
Aiblins ye'll try a canny keek oot the pane
Dichtin the gless wi yer thoum
A'thing unco quaet - deil's wark doon the wynd.
Lth. 1925 C. P. Slater Marget Pow 9:
Be canny when it comes to washing the best china.
Edb. 1772 R. Fergusson Sc. Poems (1925) 23:
It's good as lang's a canny chiel Can stand steeve in his shoon.
wm.Sc. [1835–1837] Laird of Logan (1868) 98:
A necessitous individual, who lived by levies on friends, . . . made up to a canny son of the north . . . for the loan of ten pounds.
wm.Sc. 1986 Robert McLellan in Joy Hendry Chapman 43-4 29:
Fetch the lad ben, McKillop. Be cannie wi him.
wm.Sc. 1987 Anna Blair Scottish Tales (1990) 11:
But by now the thought had occurred to him that his father and Sam Hay, both canny business men, might find a match between himself and Nansie a fine thing.
wm.Sc. 1989 Anna Blair The Goose Girl of Eriska 120:
He knew Nimmo as a prosperous business man but he was a canny Scot too ...
wm.Sc. 1995 Alan Warner Morvern Callar 9:
I stacked the pallets, put the wooden boxes by the service lift then broke the cardboard ones down, being canny not to slash my hands on the copper staples.
wm.Sc. 1998 Alan Warner The Sopranos (1999) 151:
... he shoved out the receiver with disgust, like a salute, face turned away from it. Kylah took it and, canny-like, put it to her cheek.
Uls. 1922 S. S. McCurry Ballads of Ballytumulty 33:
Poor Madge encouraged Hughy John With many a word an' smile, But cute or canny he sut on In swithers all the while.

Hence (1) cannily, adv., carefully; quietly; (2) canniness, n., caution; (3) canny-weys, adv., cautiously (Bnff.2, Abd.9, Ags.1 1938); (4) cannywise, gently (Sh., Ags. 1975). Derivatives can be similarly formed in any of the senses 28.(1) Sc. 1728 Ramsay Poems II. 91:
Thus steering cannily throw Life, Your Joys shall lasting be and rife.
Abd. 1925 A. Murison Rosehearty Rhymes 9:
The great thing in life wis a poachin' exploit. Jamie, an' Peter, an' Robbie, the three Gaed cannily doon to the edge o' the sea.
(2) Sc. 1988 Scotsman 21 Sep 10:
The number of people Mr Davy is reported to have duped casts serious doubt on the vaunted innate canniness of Scots, ...
Fif. 1900 “S. Tytler” Jean Keir of Craigneil xv.:
Jenny Baird, but a silly woman in her canniness, to have both husband and son taken from her in one night . . .!
(3) Ags.(D) 1894 J. B. Salmond My Man Sandy (1899) i.:
Jookin' awa' roond canny-weys to the horse's heid.
(4) Sc. 1825 T. D. Lauder Lochandhu xxi.:
Canny-wise, Doctor! lay your hand on my shouther.

2. Skilful, dexterous (Bnff.2, Abd.9, Fif.1, Lnl.1 1938).Sc. 1816 Scott O. Mortality v.:
His wife was a canny body and could dress things very weel for ane in her line o' business.
Ork.(D) 1880 Dennison Orcad. Sk. Bk. 15:
The officer wus canny eneuch at fencin'.
Abd. after 1768 A. Ross Fortunate Shepherd MS. 68:
Who have nae other trade, but ilka day Are growing cannyer at that bloody play.
Ags. 1820 R. Mudie Glenfergus II. xxiv.:
Old Effie; who, as she herself said, and the Doctor certified, was the canniest hand about a sick bed in a' Fergustown.
Rnf. 1788 E. Picken Poems, etc. 75:
Whan rhime to rhime, wi' kanny skill Ye kipple to compactly.

3. Favourable; fortunate, lucky, of good omen, esp. in a superstitious sense; safe, without dire or unpleasant consequences. Gen.Sc. Often used with a negative = unnatural, supernatural (Slg.3, Lnl.1 1938).Sc. 1721 Ramsay Poems 375–376:
Whaever by his kanny Fate Is Master of a good Estate . . . Let him enjoy't withoutten Care.
Sc. 1814 Scott Waverley (1817) lxvii.:
At these unsonsy hours the glen has a bad name — there's something no that canny about auld Janet Gellatley.
w.Abd. 1797–1881 W. D. Geddes (ed.) Mem. of J. Geddes (1899) 41:
It is to be feared that “Cotties” and his clan were . . . as much dreaded as they were respected, the belief being that they were “nae jist a' thegither canny,” and report had it that they had tried strange “cantraips” to obtain power over the invisible world.
Ags. 1834 T. Guthrie Autobiog. I. 147:
"My good sir, I am not very canny just now." "How," he replied; "have you been seeing any case of typhus fever?"
Ags. 1894 J. B. Salmond My Man Sandy (1899) 122:
They sat up like life-guairds, and ilky body near me lookit like's it wudna be cannie speakin' to them.
m.Sc. 1986 Colin Mackay The Song of the Forest 34:
"That's no canny," said a voice.
Donwald rode up to the Shirra's side. Fergus heard the word "omen." These were superstitious times.
m.Sc. 1986 Colin Mackay The Song of the Forest 62:
"I've felt the eyes too," said Una suddenly. "There are things that are no canny in yon place."
Per. c.1800 Lady Nairne Songs (ed. Rogers 1886) 229:
I'll try her again, and that maks thrice, And thrice, they say, is canny.
Fif. 1986 Harry D. Watson in Joy Hendry Chapman 43-4 163:
" ... Be the wecht we thocht it was a drooned man, but it focht wi's a' the wey tae the herbour. Thon wisnae canny."
Edb. 1894 P. H. Hunter J. Inwick xviii.:
Lordsake, thinks I, this is no' canny! There maun be ghaists aboot!
Peb. 1715 A. Pennecuik Descr. of Tweeddale and Sc. Poems 62:
Farewel, old Calins, kannie all thy Life, By Birth, by Issue and a Vertuous Wife.
wm.Sc. 1986 Robert McLellan in Joy Hendry Chapman 43-4 20:
What was it?
Something no cannie. I wad watch mysell wi her, mither.
Ayr. 1822 Galt Provost xl.:
I, however, took a canny opportunity of remarking to old Mr Dinledoup.
Uls.(D) 1879 W. G. Lyttle Readings by Robin 16:
A lump o' a barefitted lass wae her heid a' in a toother cum up tae us an' stud glowerin' at me as tho' I had been sumthin' no' canny.

4. Applied to one who deals in the supernatural; gen. in combs. (1) canny man, (2) — wife, (3) — woman. Known to Abd.9, Fif.10 (for Mearns), Fif.1 1938. Arch.Ayr. 1787 Burns Letters (Ferguson) No. 147:
Our true brother, Ross of Lochlee, was likewise "owre cannie"-a "wild warlock".
(1) ne.Sc. 1881 W. Gregor Folk-Lore of N.-E. Scot. 32:
The husband consulted a canny man.
(2) Ayr. 1824 A. Crawford Tales of my Grandmother (1825) I. 180:
Yonder's the canny wife's bield!
(3) Bnff. 1890 Trans. Bnffsh. Field Club 56:
All its [horse's] strength was gone. 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.

5. Frugal, saving; sparing, scanty (Bnff.2, Abd.9, Ags.17, Fif.1, Slg.3, Lnl.1, Kcb.1 1938).Fif.10 1938:
Be canny wi' the butter, bairns; that's a' there is in the hoose.
Edb. 1811 H. Macneill Bygane Times 29:
Sometime bygane, whan folk war canny, And valued show far less than money.
wm.Sc. [1835–1837] Laird of Logan (1868) 441:
Of all the sons of canny Scotland, the canniest and most cautious are the inhabitants of Aberdeen. Scotchmen, in general, when they wish to purchase anything, content themselves with offering the half of what is wanted, but a real Aberdonian seldom offers above a fourth.
Gall. c.1870 J. Lewis in Bards of Gall. (ed. Harper 1889) 149:
Yes, John was laird o' a' the three, An' what's he noo? Hired for a cotman's canny fee To haud the pleugh!

6. Gentle, quiet, steady (Bnff.2, Abd.19, Ags.1, Fif.1, Slg.3, Lnl.1, Lnk.3, Kcb.9 1938).Abd.(D) 1916 G. Abel Wylins fae my Wallet 21:
I miss the canny joggin' o' the days fin I wis here.
m.Sc. 1926 “O. Douglas” Proper Place xx.:
In Scotland it means gentle — “Canny wee thing.”
Per. 1762 in T. L. K. Oliphant Jacobite Lairds of Gask (1870) 331:
In the mean time let him sit straight and turn in his toes, and if the horse is canny, trotting up and down without stirops will; give him a firm seat.
Hdg. 1896 J. Lumsden Battle of Dunbar, etc. 125:
A cannier beast does no' survive him — He loot our wee'st callant drive him.

7. Pleasant; good, kind (Bnff.2, Abd.9, Ags.1, Fif.10, Lnl.1 1938). A gen. term of approbation.Sc. 1724–1727 Ramsay T. T. Misc. (1733) 66:
A canny, saft and flow'ry den, Which circling birks have form'd a bower.
Ags. 1927 V. Jacob Northern Lights 3:
We'll slip alang tae whaur ye ken Afore this cannie gloamin' passes.
Lnk. 1838 McIlwham Papers (ed. J. Morrison) Preface p.v.:
She's a canny an' a kinly creature.
Dmf. 1795 Stat. Acc.1 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.

8. Comfortable, easy (Bnff.2, Abd.2, Fif.1, Slg.3, Lnl.1 1938).Sc. 1816 Scott Antiquary (1818) xi.:
It's easy for your honour, and the like o' you gentlefolks, to say sae, that hae . . . meat and claith, and sit dry and canny by the fire-side.
Ags. 1822 A. Balfour Farmers' Three Daughters I. xi.:
Will education had you warm in your bed, or canny at your ain fireside?
Ags.17 1938:
“He's aff his canny seat,” used of one who has unexpectedly been forced to work harder than usual.
m.Sc. 1838 A. Rodger Poems, etc. 249:
Gane are our bits o' canny jobs, By whilk we used to line our fobs.

II. adv. Gently, carefully, quietly, skilfully. Jam.6 says: “the adverbial use of this word is very common in the West of Scotland, and its applications are exceedingly varied,” as in the adj. Also used with imperative force. Gen.Sc. Comb. cannie-gaein, easy-going (Ags. 1945).Sc. 1816 Scott Antiquary (1818) vii.:
There — that will do! — canny now, lad, — canny now.
Sc. 1832 A. Henderson Sc. Proverbs 6:
Canny stretch, soon reach.
Crm. 1933 D. A. Mackenzie Stroopie Well 5:
The wudden stroopie's on the dreep, I leave the pailie hinging canny.
Abd. 1790 A. Shirrefs Poems 266:
Wha did her jobs sae freely canny, That mony ane laments poor Nanny.
Fif. 1985 Christopher Rush A Twelvemonth and a Day 44:
'Lay it on canny, for pity's sake,' said my grandfather. 'It'll take his skin off like that.'
Arg. 1992:
The Fame went doon nice and canny, an I jumped an came doon flet some wey on the stagin o the howld.
Kcb. 1885 A. J. Armstrong Friend and Foe xix.:
He gangs canny eneuch to his waddin an' wake.

III. Phrase: to ca' canny. See Ca' Canny.

IV. Combs.: ‡(1) cannyca', canneca, “the woodworm; apparently denominated from the softness of the sound emitted by it, q[uasi] what caws or drives cannily” (Fif. 1825 Jam.2; 1916 T.S.D.C. II., canneca, obsol.); (2) canny (cannie) moment, — mament, the moment of child-birth; “the designation given to the time of fortunate child-bearing; otherwise called the happy hour; in Angus, canny mament” (Sc. 1825 Jam.2; Abd.22, Fif.10 1938); (3) canny-Nanny, “a species of yellow stingless bumble-bee” (Rxb. 1923 Watson W.-B. 78; m. and s.Sc. 1975); (4) canny-wife, cannie —, a midwife (Abd.19, Fif.10 1938).(1) Fif. 1887 G. Gourlay Old Neighbours 67:
"Oh, Tam, I hav'na steekit an e'e thae three nichts for the canny ca'," an omen only too sadly fulfilled in the swamping of the boat and the loss of all hands a few hours later.
(2) Sc. 1815 Scott Guy M. (1817) i.:
Ye'll be come in the canny moment, I'm thinking, for the laird's servant . . . rade express by this e'en to fetch the houdie.
Gall. 1745 in J. Douglas Book of Galloway (1882) 6:
At the cannie moment he was born.
(4) Abd. c.1746 W. Forbes Dominie Deposed (1800) 11:
The canny wives came there conveen'd All in a whirl.
Ags. 1819 A. Balfour Campbell I. ii.:
Weel, sister, I'm glad to see you sae weel recovered; wha was your canny-wife?
Dmf. 1810 R. H. Cromek Rem. Nithsd. and Gall. Song 61:
Kimmer wasna bidden whan the cannie wives gade.

[O.Sc. canny, cannie, adj., (1) free from risk, safe (earliest date 1592), (2) sagacious, cautious, prudent, (3) lucky, pleasant. Of obscure origin (D.O.S.T.). Apparently from Can, n.2, knowledge, skill, + -y. Cf. Norw. kunnig, knowing, skilful (Falk and Torp), O.N. kunnigr, versed in magic art (Zoëga).]

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"Canny adj., adv.". Dictionary of the Scots Language. 2004. Scottish Language Dictionaries Ltd. Accessed 21 Jul 2024 <>



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