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What are Shenanigans?

Prank calls are a type of shenanigan that may be irritating for the victim.
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  • Written By: Mary McMahon
  • Edited By: O. Wallace
  • Last Modified Date: 20 September 2014
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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 “shenanigans” comes from, and 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 a singular form of “shenanigans.” Apparently a single shenanigan 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 “Shenanigans,” presumably referencing this common use of the word.

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Shenanigans 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 shenanigans 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.

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anon330815
Post 4

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

sweetPeas
Post 2

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.

B707
Post 1

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?

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