Alan Bedford • Link
"...I find him to be a very sociable man, and an able man, and very cunning."
It would appear that the Admiral might also be trying to size up Sam, even as Sam is developing his opinion. And unless the common definition of "cunning" has changed, Sam seems to find much to respect where Penn is concerned. I don't think that he's using "cunning" as a derogatory expression here.
Nate Lockwood • Link
I was told some time ago that cunning would have been more like a fox is cunning: it's going to have a chicken for supper. Perhaps someone else could shine some light on the archaic useage.
Mary • Link
According to OED citations, the more pejorative senses of this word only begin to appear at the end of the 16th century, so it is most likely that Pepys is using it in its more common sense at this date to mean knowledgeable, learned, skilful, showng expertise etc. The general tone of his remarks here is one of approval.
Richard Lacey • Link
The positive connotation of "cunning" apparently endured in some circles, certainly as late as 1970, when my grandmother-in-law frequently used cunning as an exclamatory compliment -- e.g., "what a cunning child!"
Paul Brewster • Link
On the recent use of "cunning" in a somewhat positive sense:
Richard: I think the OED reserves a separate sense for your grandmother-in-law’s usage. They describe it as “U.S. colloq.” (This may or may not be appropriate to your case) and illustrate it with the following quote, which is a great definition unto itself, “1887 Century Mag. … As a child, she had been called "cunning" in the popular American use of the word when applied to children; that is to say, piquantly interesting.”
Holt Parker • Link
L&M's "Select Glossary" rightly gives 'knowledgeable'.
However, Pepys' own usage shows that the word was capable of bearing that half-admiring/half-disparaging sneer that only Brits can bring to the word "clever". So look back at
13 Jan. 1660: "He also told me that Monk's letter that came to them by the sword-bearer was a cunning piece, and that which they did not much trust to."
4 May 1660: "This morning came Captain Isham on board with a gentleman going to the King, by whom very cunningly, my Lord tells me, he intends to send an account of this day's and yesterday's actions here."
And annotations there.
Jenny Doughty • Link
Over here in Maine, 'cunning' is used as an adjective to mean 'cute' in the sense of pretty or attractive, so it has the sense of 'piquantly interesting' but isn't exactly that alone. I don't know if this is a purely local usage though.
Nate Lockwood • Link
I think Paul has got it for us US folks. I first heard the somewhat pejorative usage from a South African acquaintance around 1960 and assumed for some reason that it was archaic.
vincent • Link
"cunning" meaning street smart , keeps ‘is cards hidden , a real poker player, Remember Sir Will has served on all the decks.(a true survilist, a very necessary skill in the polical arena)
‘cunning, adj. Etym: Original type *cunnende, present participle of can v.1 (infinitive Old English cunnan . . ), in its earlier sense ‘to know’; hence originally = ‘knowing’ . .
. . 2. a. Possessing practical knowledge or skill; able, skilful, expert, dexterous, clever. (Formerly the prevailing sense; now only a literary archaism.)
. . a1616 Shakespeare Twelfth Night (1623) iii. iv. 276 And I thought he had beene valiant, and so cunning in Fence.
1690 J. Locke Two Treat. Govt. ii. xix, The tools of Cunninger workmen . .
. . 4. Possessing keen intelligence, wit, or insight; knowing, clever.
1671 J. Webster Metallographia vi. 106 Wiser heads, and cunninger wits . .
. . 5. a. In bad sense: Skilful in compassing one's ends by covert means; clever in circumventing; crafty, artful, guileful, sly. (The prevailing modern sense.)
. . a1616 Shakespeare Henry V (1623) ii. ii. 108 Whatsoeuer cunning fiend it was That wrought upon thee.
. . 1653 H. Cogan tr. F. M. Pinto Voy. & Adventures xvi. 54 Like cunning thieves, desiring that the prey..should not escape out of their hands.
1752 Johnson Rambler No. 193. ⁋1 The cunning will have recourse to stratagem, and the powerful to violence . . ‘
Clearly sense 4 is meant here.
cunning - Online Etymology Dictionary [another OED]
cunning (adj.) Look up cunning at Dictionary.com
early 14c., "learned, skillful," present participle of cunnen "to know" (see can (v.1)), from PIE root *gno- "to know." Sense of "skillfully deceitful" is probably late 14c. As a noun from c. 1300. Related: Cunningly. ... canny, can, etc.