Saturday 8 September 1660

All day also at home. At night sent for by Sir W. Pen, with whom I sat late drinking a glass of wine and discoursing, and I find him to be a very sociable man, and an able man, and very cunning.

18 Annotations

First Reading

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)

Second Reading

Bill  •  Link

More positive than negative, I'd say.

1. Skilful; knowing; learned.
2. Performed with skill; artful.
3. Artfully deceitful; trickish; subtle; crafty; subdolous.
4. Acted with subtilty.
---A Dictionary Of The English Language. Samuel Johnson, 1756.

Chris Squire UK  •  Link

OED has:

‘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.

John Aitken  •  Link

I recall Sir Percy in Blackadder 2 (16th century) exclaiming he had discovered a new green gem stone, which he had cunningly fashioned a broach out of. Not exactly an infallible reference, but they were pretty good with their historical accuracy.

Terry Foreman  •  Link

cunning - Online Etymology Dictionary [another OED]

cunning (adj.) Look up cunning at
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.…

Third Reading

MartinVT  •  Link

Two slow days in a row for Sam, and tomorrow is Lord's Day. The boss is away and he is making a long weekend of it.

LKvM  •  Link

"Cunning" is an Anglo-Saxon word going back to German "können," meaning to be able.

San Diego Sarah  •  Link

"The boss is away and he is making a long weekend of it."

Nope -- the boss is the Lord High Admiral, James, Duke of York, and he might be out hunting, but he is very much living in Whitehall and in charge of the Navy.

I suspect the reason Sandwich went home for a few days was (1) to avoid voting on the Bill of "An Act of Free and General Pardon, Indemnity, and Oblivion"; (2) see if the children liked their new boats; and (3) to avoid being in the way of James establishing himself as the boss. All the seafarers would automatically refer to him rather than the upstart who had never been to sea.

A more likely reason there's not much work to be done is that THERE IS NO MONEY, and no one is offering them credit.
Until the cash hits the Exchequor, no ships roll.

David G  •  Link

Pepys’s role on the Navy Board at this point is reflected in his casual reference in today’s entry to the fact that Penn had sent for him (just as Sandwich had sent for him a few months before), as opposed to inviting him over for a glass of wine or calling on him, and that Pepys obeyed.

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