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.