“Shenanigans” means trickery, underhand action, intrigue, skulduggery, high-spirited behavior, or mischief.
The earliest record of it is in San Francisco (April 25 issue of Town Talk) in 1855.
As to the source, word looks Irish, and there was no shortage of Irishmen working the California gold rush, so it’s reasonable to suggest the Irish word sionnachuighm as the source, meaning “I play tricks,” and which is pronounced roughly as “shinnuckeem.” Other suggestions include Spanish chanada, a shortened form of charranada, meaning “trick, deceit.”Another guess centers on Irish sionnach meaning “fox.”
Another theory is that it comes from an East Anglian dialect word “nannicking,” which means playing the fool.
The word was used in a review of Michael Frayn’s Noises Off in the Sunday Telegraph, December 18, 2011. “At its best, his play ought to be a melody of mishaps, a symphony of off-stage shenanigans, a crescendo of catastrophe. The Old Vic’s clumsy revival feels instead like a game of ping-pong being played with a potato.” At least other reviewers treated it more kindly.
The word was originally used to mean intrigue and skulduggery, as evidenced by this quote from Mark Twain in 1862: “Consider them all … guilty (of ‘shenanigan’) until they are proved innocent.” By the early 1900s, however, “shenanigan” (especially in the plural form “shenanigans”) was being used in a more lighthearted sense to mean “tricks, pranks, silliness.”
It meant “pranks,” when I was a child. My mother was prone to saying, “Stop your shenanigans now, or I’ll give you a thick ear.” My ears appear to be the same as everybody else’s, so I must have give up the shenanigans. Reluctantly, of course. And only until I left home!