Two quite different words with the same three-letter prefix cropped up the other day: shenanigan and shebang. Where does shebang come from and is shenanigan as Irish as it sounds? By thinking Irish we’re on the right track that leads to this word.
But there are so many other tracks that the Oxford English Dictionary doesn’t want to go down any of them and curtly lists the word as ‘origin unknown’. What we do know for sure is that the word first appeared in print on April 25, 1855 in the San Francisco publication Town Talk and it meant underhand practices or trickery.
The term became popular during the California Gold Rush (1848-59) when skulduggery of all kinds was rife. As Irish prospectors hunted for gold at that time, some think the origin of shenanigan is the Irish ‘sionnachuighan’, I play tricks.
Other possibilities include the Spanish ‘chanada’ (trick or deceit), the East Anglian dialect ‘nannicking’ (playing the fool), the German slang ‘Schenigelei’ (trick) and the Erse ‘sionnach’ pronounced shinnuch. But it’s a good deal less complicated to list it as ‘origin unknown’.
The shebang word originates in the United States and has had several meanings over the years. In Specimen Days, (1862) Walt Whitman used it to mean a shack. He wrote: “Besides the hospitals, I also go occasionally on long tours through the camps, talking to the men, etc. Sometimes at night among the groups around the fires, in their shebang enclosures of bushes.”
Writer Samuel Bowles described a shebang in his book Across the Continent (1865) as “any kind of an establishment, store, house, shop or shanty”. The word was often used to describe a tavern.
In a list of The Idioms of our New West in the Marysville Tribune in 1869, the word was defined as being “applied to any sort of house or office”.
It could be related to the Irish word ‘shebeen’, an unlicensed and frequently disreputable drinking place.
Author Mark Twain was the first to use it for a hired vehicle. In Roughing It (1872) he wrote: “Take back your money, madam. We can’t allow it. You’re welcome to ride here as long as you please, but this shebang’s chartered and we can’t let you pay a cent.”
There is another possible origin here: the French ‘char-a-banc’, a carriage with benches that became a ‘charabanc’ in Britain.
Another sense of the word exists: shebang can mean the business or the current concern as in the phrase ‘the whole shebang’, meaning the entire set-up or the whole affair. This sense of the word was first used by the US military.
The origins of musical terms and instruments are often a source of puzzlement. How, for instance, do we get the word ‘banjo’ and who invented it? Several of the stringed instruments are very much inter-connected, both in name and structure.
The banjo name evolved from instruments known in different parts of the world as ‘mandore’, ‘mandura’, ‘bandore’ and similar names. The mandolin also came from ‘mandore’.
African slaves took the ‘bandore’ to America but they pronounced the word as ‘banjore’…and Americans started to call it the banjo.
Joel Walker Sweeney, leader of the Sweeney Minstrels, in the 1830s added a fifth string to the four-stringed original and was credited with inventing the banjo.
But pictures dating from before his time show banjos with five strings, so we don’t know who first made and played it.
The word can mean other things. From the mid-19th century to the early 20th century, a hospital bedpan was called a banjo. Durham miners and Australian builders used banjo when referring to a shovel. The shovels of railway firemen were also called banjos and in the First World War entrenching tools were nicknamed banjos.
A banjo could also be a big bread roll cut in half and with a cheese or ham filling. Servicemen in the 1920s gave big sandwiches the banjo name and in the 1950s soldiers in Malaya and Cyprus were referring to ‘egg banjos’ and ‘chip banjos’. For trawlermen, a banjo was a thick slice of bread topped with a thick slice of cheese.
In Australia of the 1920s, a shoulder of mutton was called a banjo and earlier, in the late 19th century, Australians also used the banjo word for a frying pan.
The origin of scarecrow came up in conversation between two friends. One said it dated from the early 19th century but the other was sure it has to be much earlier than that.
Well, scarecrow goes back much further than the 19th century. It was first used in 1553 to describe someone who was employed to frighten birds away from crops.
The first reference to scarecrow as a device for frightening birds didn’t come until 1592. Before those dates, a scarecrow existed but they were known a a ‘fray-boggard’, or fear bogey.
Shakespeare used scarecrow in two of his plays, Henry VI Part I and Measure for Measure. In the latter he wrote: “We must not make a scarecrow of the law,/Setting it up to fear the birds of prey.”
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