Friday, December 16, 2011

`An Appreciation of Close-work'

“A comparatively modern word: not found before 17th cent.”

So says the Oxford English Dictionary of canny, a word written more often than spoken, at least in the U.S., though its first cousin, uncanny, is a Madison Avenue word, pretentious hyperbole. With canny I think clever, competent, crafty, up for the task, shrewd. Richard Stark’s Parker is canny, a con man and ex-con. Odysseus is the model of canniness and cunning. Lawrence I. Lipking writes in his life of Samuel Johnson:

“Actually Johnson never set foot on Grub Street. Yet he enjoys identifying with Odysseus, the canny hero who is never more dangerous than when he masquerades as nobody [“μή τις,” as he tells Polyphemus].”

Canny connects with can (“know how to”) and ken (“knowledge”). Among the more obscure definitions is “Of humour: Quiet, sly, ‘pawky’,” a meaning “used by English writers as characteristic of Scottish humour.” Sly is good, foxlike, dissembling. The title of the American poet Campbell McGrath’s “An Irish Word” refers to canny. Here are the opening stanzas:

“Canny has always been an Irish word
to my ear, so too its cousin crafty,
suggesting not only an appreciation of close-work,
fine-making, handwrought artistry,

“but a highly evolved reliance on one’s wits to survive,
stealth in the shadow of repressive institutions,
`silence, exile, and cunning,’ in Joyce’s admonition,
ferret-sly, fox-quick, silvery, and elusive.”

Sticking with Joyce for the moment, canny shows up three times in Finnegans Wake, most suggestively in a phrase that reverses the initials of the novel’s protagonist, Humphrey Chimpden Earwicker:

“Ear canny hare for doubling through Cheeverstown they raced him, through Loughlinstown and Nutstown to wind him by the Boolies.”

“Ear, can he hear?” Anyone can play this game. Canny scholars have built careers around it. Joyce advised in the Wake: “Wipe your glosses with what you know.”

1 comment:

George said...

Odysseus gave his name as "Outis" to the Cyclops. I agree that "me tis" would have had its charms, given that a change of accent changes "metis", nobody to "metis", plan or counsel.