Caroline, The words ‘canny’ and ‘uncanny’ are no longer opposites, although at the time of their first appearances in print (circa mid-1600s – both relatively young English words) they were. The meaning of ‘canny’ has shifted a bit, but the meaning of ‘uncanny’ has slowly drifted to a quite different meaning.
CANNY adjective : 1) careful, cautious, prudent, wary, especially where one's own interests are concerned. <He gave a canny reply.> 2) clever, cunning, sly, astute, shrewd, sharp-witted, knowing, sagacious, wise, skilled, expert, foresighted, especially in worldly affairs <a canny negotiator> 3) cautious in spending money, frugal, thrifty. <In order to survive she had to be canny with her meager earnings> Note: There are several different additional Scottish meanings which are not common in mainstream English and which I have not included.
[In Old English the verb ‘can’ (725) meant ‘to know.’ ‘Canny’ was formed as a variant of the Old English verb ‘can’ (725), to know, know how, be able, and/or from the Scots noun ‘can’ meaning: i) skill, knowledge or ii) power, ability. In its original sense ‘canny, conny’ was nearly = ‘cunnand’ (obsolete form of cunning), ‘cunning.’ The earliest meaning of ‘canny’ was knowing, sagacious, judicious, prudent; wary, cautious. In the early 19th century it came to especially mean cautious in worldly matters, worldly-wise, shrewd, having a constant eye to the main chance, skillful, clever, and cunning.]
UNCANNY adjective : 1) Peculiarly unsettling and arousing feelings of inexplicable strangeness, as if of supernatural origin or nature, eerie, mysterious, weird. <It was that saddest, most uncanny thing—a deserted house.> 2) Extending to a degree beyond what is normal or expected, suggesting superhuman or supernatural powers or qualities. So keen and perceptive as to seem preternatural. <She showed an uncanny ability to gauge the public's taste.> <His uncanny skill with animals would serve him well>
[originally meant ‘careless, incautious,’ exactly the opposite of ‘canny,’ as one might expect. By 1773 the meaning of ‘canny’ had shifted a bit from a person who was careless to a person who was “not quite safe to trust or to, or have dealings with, as being associated with supernatural arts or powers.” By circa 1840 the meaning had shifted a bit further to “partaking of a supernatural character, mysterious, weird, uncomfortably strange or unfamiliar.]
(Barnhart Concise Dictionary of Etymology, Oxford English Dictionary, Merriam-Webster’s and Random House Unabridged Dictionaries
<1637 “Men's CANNY wisdom, who, in this storm, take the nearest shore and go to the lee and calm side of the Gospel.”—‘Joshua Redivivus or Mr. Rutherfoords Letters’ by Rutherford, lxxxiii, I. page 212> [[careful, cautious]]
<1638 “I [was] . . . made hopefull he would not suffer it to be spoiled by the imprudencie of mony UNCANNIE hands which are about it.”—‘Letters & Journals’ (1841) by R. Baillie, I. page 100> [[careless, incautious]]
<1773 “For this some ca'd him an UNCANNY wight [person]; The clash gaed round, ‘he had the second sight’.”—‘Poems’ (1789) by R. Fergusson, II. page 8> [[associated with supernatural arts or powers]]
<1843 “If men, gentlemen born, will read UNCANNY books, . . . why they must resolve to reap what they sow.”—‘The Last of the Barons’ by Lytton, I. vii> [[of a supernatural character, mysterious, weird]]
Ken G – November 19, 2004
Reply from Ken Greenwald (Fort Collins, CO - U.S.A.)