One of the rituals of international air travel is that of being asked a number of standard questions by a security official before you can check your luggage. One of the more interesting questions is “Are you carrying anything that could be used as a weapon?” My response is always “No” but my mental response is always “Yes, if I use a little imagination and cunning.”
I say that because with only a minimal amount of thinking I reckon I could turn many of the items in my carry-on bag into weapons of death. The simplest would be to remove the shoulder strap on my bag and use it to strangle someone. That’s almost a no-brainer option and something that anyone could do.
Like most folks, I carry a few pens and pencils that have been collected from the hundreds of hotels I’ve stayed in over the years. With a small amount of force, a pen can be jammed into someone’s jugular, resulting in a crimson cascade of blood and the eventual death of your victim.
Furthermore, if I were to break the glass on a smart phone screen, I suspect I could find a piece of glass long and sharp enough to slit someone’s throat. And don’t get me started on what I could do with a paper clip that’s been unfolded to become a thin, sharp, pointed spear of metal. Doubtless a professional assassin would be trained to use his or her entire body as a weapon.
So given the assumption that I believe I have cunning, the Oxford English Dictionary defines this sense of the word as;
Showing skill or expertness; skilfully contrived or executed; skillful, ingenious.
I say “this sense” because its meaning has shuffled around a little since its first appearance in the grippingly titled English Metrical Homilies from Manuscripts of the Fourteenth Century of 1325;
For he wil that they stither rise
And be cunnand in his seruise.
Note the Middle English variation of cunnand, which is one of many spellings that include connand, conand, kunnyng, konnyng, connyng, cuning, cunnyng, conning, and conninge. I mention all these because its worth remembering that prior to the mass production of books after the printing press, spellings were more flexible that a politician’s promise.
The original meaning was simply that of possessing knowledge and learning, or being versed in a subject. And in this sense, it can be traced back to the verb can, which originally meant “to know” long before it took on its current day function as a modal verb meaning “to be able” or “permission.”
The Old English cunnan was the same as the Old Saxon cunnan, Old High German kunnen, Old Norse kunna, and the Gothic kunnan. So describing it as Germanic in origin is hardly likely to raise any eyebrows or disagreement.
By the end of the 14th century, the word has also taken on a specific meaning as referring to people with magical powers;
Possessing magical knowledge or skill: in cunning man, cunning woman, a fortune-teller, conjurer, “wise man,” “wise woman,” wizard or witch. (OED)
In Britain, fifteenth century practitioners of folks magic were known as “the cunning folk,” who were apparently sometimes used in the same way that modern “psychics” are allegedly used by law enforcement – to locate criminals, stolen property, and missing persons. A distinction was, in fact, drawn between the cunning folk and witches, where the latter were deemed malevolent but the former as valuable members of society. It was not unusual for someone to employ one of the cunning folks to remove a witches curse, or at least provide protection from witches’ spells. It seems that we had “Psychic Hotlines” long before telephones were even thought about!
The word took on a more negative connotation by the 17th century when it was used to describe the process of being, “(s)kilful in compassing one’s ends by covert means; clever in circumventing; crafty, artful, guileful, sly.” Shakespeare used it in Henry V when Henry himself said;
And whatsoever cunning fiend it was
That wrought upon thee so preposterously
Hath got the voice in hell for excellence.
This is typically the common meaning today.
In the USA, the word is used colloquially to refer to something that is, “quaintly interesting, pretty, or attractive.” For example, in a copy of The Century Illustrated Monthly Magazine dated November 1887, you can find the following quotation;
As a child, she had been called ‘cunning’ in the popular American use of the word when applied to children; that is to say, piquantly interesting.
It’s also interesting that although this meaning is an American colloquialism, it was used by Charles Dickens in his 1943 novel Martin Chuzzlewit;
Tea and coffee arrived (with sweet preserves, and cunning teacakes in its train).
Thanks to the comic genius of British comedian, Rowan Atkinson, and the team of the classic Blackadder series, the word cunning became part of a catch phrase used frequently by Baldrick, the character played by Tony Robinson. For example;
Private Baldrick: I have a plan, sir.
Captain Blackadder: Really Baldrick? A cunning and subtle one?
Private Baldrick: Yes, sir.
Captain Blackadder: As cunning as a fox who’s just been appointed Professor of Cunning at Oxford University?
Private Baldrick: Yes, sir.
For those who have either missed the slightly surreal but linguistically delicious humor of Blackadder, here’s a link to a clip of Baldrick and a “cunning plan.”
And for those who demand more, sit back and watch a short documentary about the series, replete with examples of some of television’s finest verbal humor.