Yesterday I made some Easter-themed cupcakes, topped with cream-cheese frosting and dusted with green-tinted coconut. Within each nest, I placed four jelly beans. Brand: Teeny-Been. They were, if I do say so myself, pretty cunning.
When I was asked to contribute a word to Let’s Bring Back: The Lost Language Edition, I was thrilled to have a chance to agitate for my favorite adjective. It’s not that the word has disappeared, exactly, but it has shed one of its meanings. While one usage always denoted craftiness, the other meaning was benign, even infantile. Something cunning was dear, precious, made with craft and care.
Cunning seems to have been particularly appropriate to things on a small scale—perhaps denoting the skill necessary to convey perfection in miniature—and Lord knows we can hardly afford to lose a word in the already-small lexicon of things used to describe the diminutive. Cunning is a second cousin to cute: while cute applies only to the viewer’s reaction and pleasure, cunning gives full credit to the person behind the effect, a sly nod to the intention, and manipulation, behind the effort.
In the 1917 cookbook A Thousand Ways to Please a Husband, a Tut’s tomb of a certain kind of homely vernacular, everything—from triangles of toast to croquettes to the little butterflies decorating the table at a Rainbow Announcement Luncheon to the mini hatchets at a Washington’s Birthday Tea—rates the cunning treatment. This was, as Jane and Michael Stern term it in their “Ladies’ Lunch” chapter of Square Meals, the era of “smart and cunning entertaining,” and no conceit could be taken too far. After all, as A Thousand Ways is at pains to remind us, labor-saving devices were starting to come in. Women’s suffrage could not be ignored. Yes, the characters in these books are homemakers, but they are filled with energy and imagination and the desire to express their tastes and intelligence. The results may seem frivolous, but the intention was clear: to bring beauty, care, and economy to all spheres of life, however limiting or constrained. Cunning indeed.