Cass Timberlane

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July 27, 2016

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[Middle English mischef, from Old French meschief, misfortune, from meschever, to end badly : mes-, badly; see mis-1 + chever, to happen, come to an end (from Vulgar Latin capāre, to come to a head, from capum, head, from Latin caput; see kaput- in the Appendix of Indo-European roots).]


1. wayward but not malicious behaviour, usually of children, that causes trouble, irritation, etc

2. a playful inclination to behave in this way or to tease or disturb

3. injury or harm caused by a person or thing

4. a person, esp a child, who is mischievous

5. a source of trouble, difficulty, etc: floods are a great mischief to the farmer.

[C13: from Old French meschief disaster, from meschever to meet with calamity; from mes- mis-1 + chever to reach an end, from chef end, chief]


1. conduct or activity that causes petty annoyance.

2. a tendency to tease or annoy.

3. harm or trouble: to come to mischief.

4. an injury or evil caused by a person or thing.

5. a cause or source of harm, evil, or annoyance.

cut a dido To play clever pranks; to fool around or cavort about; to take part in monkey business; to cut a caper. An entertaining story which is held by some to be the origin of this expression concerns the mythical queen Dido, who founded the African city of Carthage. She obtained the land by the clever ploy of paying for only as much land as could be enclosed with a bull’s hide. That amount, however, exceeded the seller’s expectations when Dido cut the hide into thin strips and proceeded to encircle enough land to found the new city. Dido ‘prank or caper’ can stand alone; the U.S. slang cut a dido dates from at least as early as the beginning of the 19th century.

A jolly Irishman, who cut as many didos as I could for the life of me. (J. R. Shaw, Life, 1807)

gremlin A mythical being fancied to be the cause of aircraft troubles; the personification of other inexplicable mishaps. This term, possibly derived from “goblin,” was originally used by England’s Royal Air Force in World War II. Its various meanings are discussed in the following citation:

Gremlins are mythical creatures who are supposed to cause trouble such as engine failures in aeroplanes, a curious piece of whimsy-whamsy in an activity so severely practical as flying. Now the gremlin seems to be extending its sphere of operations, so that the term can be applied to almost anything that inexplicably goes wrong in human affairs. (American Speech XIX, 1944)

hanky-panky Monkey business, shenanigans, mischief; any illegal or unethical goings-on; colloquially often used for philandering or adultery. The current British sense of this term ‘legerdemain, jugglery, sleight of hand’ was apparently the original meaning of hanky-panky, thought to be related to the similar rhyming compound hocus-pocus or its variant hokey-pokey. The expression dates from at least 1841.

monkey around To fool around; to waste time or loaf; to engage in aimless activities; also monkey around with, to tinker or play with something, usually out of curiosity; to interfere with; to tamper with. This expression and its alternative, monkey about, allude to the playful behavior and curiosity associated with monkeys.

I don’t see how you fellows have time to monkey around here. (Rudyard Kipling and Wolcott Balestier, The Naulahka: A Story of West and East, 1891)
Any attempt to “monkey about” with the powers or composition of the Upper House would destroy the balance of the constitution. (Times, June 27, 1955)

monkey business Improper, unethical, or deceitful conduct or dealings; shenanigans, pranks, or mischief; hanky-panky. This expression refers to the frisky and often unpredictable behavior associated with monkeys.

Because I’ve seen her talking with one of the neighbors isn’t to say there was any monkey business between them. (H. Carmichael, Naked to the Grave, 1972)

“Monkey Business,” the title of a 1931 movie, aptly described the zany antics of its stars, the Marx brothers.

monkeyshines Shenanigans, tomfoolery, high jinks; horseplay, monkey business; pranks, practical jokes. This term combines the informal meaning of shine ‘foolish prank’ with an allusion to the frolicsome antics often associated with monkeys.

Why all the monkeyshines to get rid of Lucy? He’d been divorced before and he could be divorced again. (H. Howard, Highway to Murder, 1973)

A related expression, cut up monkey-shines ‘to behave in a mischievous or frolicksome manner,’ gave rise to other variations such as cut monkeyshines, cut shines, and cut up.

People recognizing you and staring at you cutting up monkeyshines. (Sinclair Lewis, Cass Timberlane, 1945)

Peck’s bad boy A mischievous child. This affectionate epithet for a naughty child derives from the main character in Peck’s Bad Boy and His Pa, a book written in 1883 by George W. Peck.

play the devil To act in a mischievous way; or, more seriously, to act diabolically, in a destructive and harmful manner. This expression dates from the mid-16th century.

Your firm and determined intention … to play the very devil with everything and everybody. (Charles Dickens, The Life and Adventures of Nicholas Nickleby, 1838)

play the goat To behave foolishly, to act in an irresponsible, uncontrolled manner. Goat has traditionally connoted a wide range of human folly or vice, with meanings ranging from ‘butt’ to ‘lecher.’ This colloquial expression dates from the 1800s. Variants include play the giddy goat and act the goat.

You’ll find some o’ the youngsters play the goat a good deal when they come out o’ stable. (Rudyard Kipling, From Sea to Sea, 1887)

when the cat’s away the mice will play Subordinates will always take advantage of the absence of one in authority. This still common saying appeared in John Ray’s Collection of Proverbs in the 17th century. It is based on a pessimistic view of human nature, one holding that external constraints are needed to insure proper behavior.