The word ‘shenanigans’ was mentioned a lot last week, usually with the word ‘political’ placed before it. But isn’t it rather whimsical to describe the current situation in parliament as ‘political shenanigans’ when the outcome is more serious that this word suggests?

The dictionary definition; tricks, pranks, nonsense, petty cheating, conjures up imps and devilment and merry old Englande (zip-wire –Boris?) and etymologically speaking, some claim it derives from the Irish  ‘sionnachuighim’ ‘”I play the fox” (would that be Liam Fox?) or maybe from an old Spanish word charranada meaning ‘trick’. Others suggest it could be German from Schenigelei; the craft of the peddler (as in Nigel Farage craftily securing a German passport). Wherever it comes from, ‘shenangians’ is clearly a European word to describe a European problem; our all-consuming question – shall we stay or shall we go?

But surely a phrase like “This government and their shenanigans!” is too benign and inoffensive for our dilemma. It suggests politicians are up to things that we don’t fully understand; a kind of deference, a case of sofa politics and of switching off instead of on. It’s hardly a slogan for action on the streets. So should it be allowed to embed itself into our thinking? Because that’s what words do. They infiltrate the psyche and influence not only our thoughts but also trigger a physical response. Yes, according to cognitive psychologist Elijah O’Donnell from The Conversation January 10th 2019, Simulation Theory demonstrates that ‘reading words on a screen or listening to a podcast activates areas of the brain that …..make it all the more easy to turn words into actions’. The phrase ‘Take back control’ was not an accident; it was both an aspiration and a call to action.

So if this is the case and if we want people to get off those sofas and act, then we need strong words; words like demand, claim, insist, and challenge and they need to be directed to the right people. Of course we want to persuade dissenters to see the benefits of being in a sophisticated European community but we also need to forge an alliance with those quiet, polite citizens of the UK who wanted a different outcome to the referendum of 2016 but who are still too intimidated to say so. Many public figures have stepped to the front with their irrefutable arguments, but are their words reaching those at the back; the timid, the too-polite, the unthinking, the afraid? With the possibility of a second referendum creeping closer, we need more than rhetoric, we need an orator; a leader who knows that the word ‘shenanigans’ won’t cut it, who understands how words can motivate, entice and cajole; someone who can persuade all those doubters, worriers and dissenters to walk into a voting booth and place a tick next to an option to “REMAIN”.

Anyone out there?

Patricia del Pino Roman
Patricia del Pino Roman is an educationalist, artist and writer of British/Spanish heritage, who is passionate about Europe and intercultural understanding.

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    1 Comment

    1. Interesting. I have spent a lot of time over the years looking at the meaning of words, simply because I have a bit of a horror of using them wrongly or in an inappropriate place. I looked for this word some five or six years ago when it was clearly wrongly used about a practical joke played on somebody that went badly wrong, then made news. I was fascinated to find people in the USA claiming it was their word, first used in 1855 in California. But then there was evidence of it being used in Nevada a year earlier. So I dug deeper. It was used by Irish migrants in parts of the USA, so back to the Irish theory. Here we arrive at either ‘sionnachuighim’ or ‘sionnachaíonn’ given that Gaeilge orthography is a movable feast of variety. It should surely be ‘sionnachuigheann’, which is exactly the same word in Gàidhlig in Scotland. It did indeed appear far earlier on both sides of the Muir Éireann / An Mhuir Mheann. I only read a little Gàidhlig when I have an English version beside it, but I found reference to it used in the very ancient Tuatha Dé Danann. So yaboo all other claimants and shame on media for disabusing an ancient word. It means to play the fox, with ‘sionnachuighim’ meaning ‘I am playing the fox’, or being sly. So why was it used to mean ‘tricky or questionable practices’ albeit with a bit of a humorous edge, in the context of ‘political shenanigans’ is totally whimsical as suggested. The one thing to say about the Tory government in Westminster is that they should have tried to be sly to get away with the last two and a half years of sliding downhill backwards with a crisis on their hands that they deny is a crisis and several hours after this comment is written their hubris is about to become humiliation. If anybody can be accused of shenanigans it is indeed a fox, one Liam For who should not be wasting time pretending to do trade deals worldwide, a man we remember for his attempt to be sly, who did indeed indulge in a questionable practice when he took his ‘friend’ Adam Werrity on a foreign business trip then included him in his official expenses. Now there we have shenanigans. For the rest of it, the poor innocent word has been used instead of ‘gross incompetence’ or ‘dishonesty’. Not only do I expect the humiliation of the sitting government this evening but I shall be looking out for an apology from the media addressed to ‘Shenanigans’ c/o The Gaelic Languages.

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