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.]
https://www.gutenberg.org/ebooks/12985, by Slason Thompson
My grandmother always used the word ‘cunnin’ usually I regards to something adorable and small or a baby. I’d never heard anyone else use that word. She was an Irish/German country-raised and 100 years old, so who knows where or when she picked it up…
I should also add, she was born in Ravena, NY outside of Albany.
My grandmother, Millicent Wilhelmina Morrison used “ain’t she cunnin'” as she admired a newborn. She was not Irish, nor was she from the country. Her father was born in Canada of Scottish ancestry, her mother from NYC. Grandma’s father owned the Morrison Brush Company, a factory in Lansingburgh (Troy) NY. I suspect “ain’t she cunnin'” was a slang. She was born in the late 1800’s.
My mother and my grandmother, both born and raised in Boston, also used the word cunnin’ to mean anything little and cute. I’ve never heard anyone else use it that way.
I was born and raised in southeastern Massachusetts in the 50s and 60s. The word (pronounced without the g) meant cute and was common and understood. We never thought of it as unusual.
My grandmothers both used the word though it was the wealthier one, born to privilege in England who used it more often and more broadly. In her use it meant “darling,” frequently referring to children but also clothing, flowers, sayings, settings et al.
I was born and raised in Boston. My mother, aunts, and grandmother always referred to adorable newborns and young babies as “cunnin” as in “Oh what a cunnin baby!” Our ethnic background is Irish and English.
I am from an old New England family and my Nana, born 1900 and grew up in NH, used the word freely. Always with babies, it could be a person, a kitten, puppy. It was always posed a questions/statement as in, “Isnt she just cunnin?”
My Mother used the word cunnin all the time for small babies…. We lived in Mass… Her Mother was full Irish…
I’m from Staten Island NY. My mom definitely used that to mean cute in a juvenile sense but could be used for pets as well as kids. My dad was Scottish but my recollection was that my German mom used the word, not my dad.
I too am from Staten Island NY and recall my mother, born there in 1921, using the term to mean cute, especially in reference to children, animals, or certain objects and even actions, as in “How cunnin!” or “She’s so cunnin!” I think she was the only person I ever heard use it, and I picked it up from her. She had an Irish nanny when very young, and my grandmother spoke a little German, so in view of what others have suggested about the possible Irish and/or German origins of the word, I wonder if my mother got the word from one of them.
Also, see this page: https://www.waywordradio.org/cunnin-cute/
I was just watching the show Firefly and the character Jayne says, regarding the hat his mother made and mailed to him, “pretty cunning, don’t you think?” I commented that using the word that way is a Maine thing, meant to say that it’s cute or charming, as my dad always said, “ain’t she cunnin’?” about the babies in our family. I’d never looked up the phrase before, but the first Google result references Maine vernacular, and this post was the second result. It’s interesting to read your research from historic sources.
If it were Irish or Scottish in origin, wouldn’t it still be in use in those countries?
Rebecca, a word that originated in a country might not be still in use. There are many so-called “archaic” words that used to be common, and now are not. And if the word was a so-called slang, then it would be rarer.
My grandmother, now 95, born and raised in NH said “cunnin” all the time. Cute/sweet/adorable. Sometimes referring to clothing for a baby or toddler.