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Linguistics

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What Are Shenanigans?

Mary McMahon
By
Updated: May 23, 2024

Shenanigans are activities which are intended to be mischievous and playful. Pranks and jokes, for example, are both considered to be shenanigans. This term is also sometimes used to refer to deceptive activities which cause harm, irritation, or upset, and people might use the term “no shenanigans” in the sense of “no funny business,” meaning that such activities will not be tolerated. This term is especially common in the United States, which may be its country of origin, although no one is certain.

This word has origins which are obscured in mystery. No one seems to be able to figure out where the term comes from, or when people started using it. The meaning of the word is also quite slippery, as it is used in a number of different ways, and its adoption as a slang term has further clouded its meaning. Curiously, people rarely use the singular form. Apparently the singular is simply unheard of.

In some communities, people talk about “shenanigans” in the sense of play, especially children's play and children's games. Other people use the term in reference to pranks, jokes, tomfoolery, and general fun, describing lighthearted activities which are meant to be enjoyable for all parties. Some bars and restaurants bear the name, presumably referencing this common use of the word.

The word can have more sinister implications, however. Some people use the term to describe confidence tricks and other deceptive activities which are linked more with wrongdoing than fun times. The victims of these sorts of activities may be embarrassed, humiliated, or injured, and they run the risk of losing money as well. Some people also use the term to talk about dodgy political practices, talking about “shenanigans at the polls” or referring to questionable practices in political campaigns and administrations as shenanigans in the sense of tricks.

In some regions of the United States, people use the term “call shenanigans” to talk about calling someone out for questionable activity. Someone who suspected that he or she was being bilked at an auto repair shop, for example, might say “I call shenanigans,” suggesting that some sort of deceptive activity or wrongdoing might be occurring. Practical jokers may also find the tables turned on them by victims who call shenanigans, putting an end to the joke by indicating that they have seen through it.

Language & Humanities is dedicated to providing accurate and trustworthy information. We carefully select reputable sources and employ a rigorous fact-checking process to maintain the highest standards. To learn more about our commitment to accuracy, read our editorial process.
Mary McMahon
By Mary McMahon

Ever since she began contributing to the site several years ago, Mary has embraced the exciting challenge of being a Language & Humanities researcher and writer. Mary has a liberal arts degree from Goddard College and spends her free time reading, cooking, and exploring the great outdoors.

Discussion Comments
By anon330815 — On Apr 18, 2013

I think it's an Irish word. My Nana uses the word shenanigans and she's 83. 'Tis been around for quite some time.

By sweetPeas — On Jun 06, 2011

My opinion is that it's interesting to know the origin of our sayings, but it is more important to understand them and use them in about the same way. These words and sayings make our language more colorful and conversations more interesting.

I might be wrong, but I think the most likely original is from the Irish. There is an Irish phrase that is similar to shenanigans and it means "I play tricks" or "I play the fox." Crafty leprechauns supposedly left calling cards with these phases on them.

Another interesting idea is that shenanigans came from the German language. There is a German phrase that is similar to shenanigans. It means to use trickery or devious ways to avoid work.

Just keep using shenanigans in your conversations. It's a great word, and if it isn't used, it will drop out of our vocabulary.

By B707 — On Jun 03, 2011

I think it's so weird that they don't know where this word comes from...I wonder how many other words are out there like that?

Most Americans, anyway, understand the meaning and use it in about the same way. Does anyone have any ideas about the origin or other ways that it is used today?

Mary McMahon
Mary McMahon

Ever since she began contributing to the site several years ago, Mary has embraced the exciting challenge of being a...

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