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What does the expression 'To play a canny hand' mean exactly? Is it roughly equivalent to 'to demonstrate shrewdness'?

Although this expression is seemingly widespread, I have not been able to find an explanation in miscellaneous sources (Oxford American Dict., online Cambridge Dict., online Oxford Dict., etc.)

I've seen this expression in places like these:

(a) Financial Times, (b) Minesite, and (c) Twitter.

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    As @snailplane pointed out, "play the canny hand" doesn't seem to be a very widespread expression. Please add a reference or link to where you see this expression used, so we can give you a better answer.
    – Egghead99
    Commented Sep 11, 2014 at 6:43
  • It's really not widespread, but googling for "plays a canny hand" has at least 126 results. The first one ft.com/cms/s/0/… seems to be a good example for that phrase, and brings me to the conclusion that "to play a canny hand" means "to act wisely". More in the sense of cool-headed, not necessarily shrewd. Does anyone agree?
    – mic
    Commented Sep 11, 2014 at 7:10
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    @Egghead99 — Requested references: a) Financial Times: ft.com/intl/cms/s/0/… ; b) Minesite: minesite.com/news/… ; c) twitter.com/BondStShopper/status/446644379865083904 ; d) DAY, Peter: Klop; London, 2014, p. 157.
    – Brice C.
    Commented Sep 11, 2014 at 7:13
  • @mic — I look forward to getting further comments, while yours seems to be in line with my initial thinking. Let's hang on.
    – Brice C.
    Commented Sep 11, 2014 at 7:16
  • @snailplane: Gotcha! :-) Although it's not a set expression, it has a meaning. Let's concentrate on this.
    – mic
    Commented Sep 11, 2014 at 7:56

2 Answers 2

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The hand in question is a hand of cards, either literal or figurative.

A canny hand is an example of hypallage: the hand isn't canny, the player is. We can see the same thing in phrases like drunken brawl—a brawl can't actually drink alcohol itself, of course, so when we see this phrase we understand that it must really be the brawlers who are drunk. Likewise, a hand of cards can't itself be canny. It has no brain! So canny in this phrase must describe a player, either literature or figurative.

Poker is a very common source for metaphor, of course. Compare phrases like play the hand you're dealt. If someone figuratively plays a canny (clever, shrewd, etc.) hand, they're making a canny (clever, shrewd, etc.) move in some field, for example in business.

Let's look at your examples:

  1. If Bond does exist, his world of sipping cocktails while playing a canny hand must be @TheMayFairHotel 's casino! (@BondStShopper)

    This is presumably a literal use. Bond would be playing a hand of cards in a way that would cause him to be described as "canny".

  2. Coral plays a canny hand appointing Hornby (Financial Times)

    This is figurative. Of all the things Coral could do in his position (his figurative hand of cards), he made the choice to appoint Hornby, which was canny of him.

  3. Kensington plays a canny hand in its "partnership" with De Beers (Minesite)

    This is figurative, much like 2 above.

See The Cambridge Grammar of the English Language p.558 for more discussion of hypallage. Note that this isn't a widespread or fixed phrase—it's purely compositional and can be understood by someone who's never heard it before, assuming there's enough context for it to make sense.

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  • Your point is quite remarkably substantiated and argued. I buy.
    – Brice C.
    Commented Sep 12, 2014 at 15:09
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I've never heard this expression in common usage before, but after some internet sleuthing, here's my best educated guess:

To play a canny hand means to act cleverly or shrewdly, to show good judgement, especially in a situation involving money.

Probably comes from the combination of playing a hand in poker, and the word canny, which according to Oxford Dictionaries Online means "Having or showing shrewdness and good judgment, especially in money or business matters".

So if you play a canny hand, you refused to play the hand you're dealt, and as a result, you came out on top.

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