Recently the word cunnin(g) was brought up in a FaceBook discussion group, as to whether or not it was New England slang. To be honest, I am not certain. But it was in a New Hampshire household where I heard it used first. I suspect it was perhaps Irish in origin, or at the least a New England country slang word.
I have personal remembrances of hearing the word cunnin‘ used by my mother who was born and raised in New Hampshire. When she used the word, it was always in reference to a baby or small child, implying by her usage of someone cute, pretty, and precious. My mom loved poetry, so it would not be a great stretch for me to think she learned it through reading, rather than from her parents. She always pronounced the word clearly, ‘cunnin’ with no sound of the ‘g‘ as shown in the cartoon shown to the left in this article.
The earliest instance that I can find “cunnin” used in this sense is in 1885, followed by 1890, 1892, then 1893. My mom was born in 1919 so these books could have been in her personal library, and even some read to her by her mother growing up.
Now, on to the origin of the word. In 1885 Hurst & Co. published a book called Three score poems, by William P. Tynan. One of the poems entitled, “Terry Reads A Love Letter,” he writes,
“The trousers that are his by all that’s fair!
Aug! that’s too much to stand!
But, then, I think
This comes of makin’ love wid pen an’ ink,
Forever, while my tongue is in its place,
I’ll meet the cunnin’ darlents face to face…..
The term cunnin’ is again found more than once in 1890, in a book called “Samantha Among the Brethren,” by Josiah Allen’s Wife (Marietta Holley) writes: “And she wuz dretful kinder cunnin‘ and cute, Jenette wuz. She would make the oddest little speeches; keep everybody laughin’ round her, when she got to goin’.”
In 1891 George Merrill White published a book of poems, one entitled My Views of Comfort which included these lines: “The cunnin‘ handicraft of One..”
The word seems to be catching on, for soon again in 1893, it can be found in the book, “AVE! An Ode on the Shelley Centenary, in a poem called A Christmas-Eve Courtin when it is written: An’ I could feel her shoulder, kind of comfortin’ an’ warm,
Nestlin’ agin my arm, — sech a sweet an’ cunnin‘ shoulder.
Although the word cunnin’ has seemingly appeared many times to date, I tend to think that this next source is where my mother learned the word. Eugene Field wrote a book of poetry called “Poems of Childhood,” (published in 1904) and in this book is the poem: “The Cunnin’ Little Thing” which I offer here in its entirety.
When baby wakes of mornings,
Then it ‘s wake, ye people all!
For another day
Of song and play
Has come at our darling’s call!
And, till she gets her dinner,
She makes the welkin ring,
And she won’t keep still till she ‘s had her fill—
The cunnin‘ little thing!
When baby goes a-walking,
Oh, how her paddies fly!
For that ‘s the way
The babies say
To other folk “by-by”;
The trees bend down to kiss her,
And the birds in rapture sing,
As there she stands and waves her hands—
The cunnin‘ little thing!
When baby goes a-rocking
In her bed at close of day,
On her dainty cheek
The dreams and the dimples play;
Then it ‘s sleep in the tender kisses
The guardian angels bring
From the Far Above to my sweetest love—
You cunnin‘ little thing!
See “New Hampshire Slanguage”
[Editor’s note: While Eugene Field was born in Missouri, he was raised by his aunt, Mary Field French in Amherst, Massachusetts.]
Eugene Field, A Study In Heredity And Contradictions, by Slason Thompson