A recent episode of the radio show and podcast A Way With Words made mention of the slang term keener, citing it as a Canadianism for someone who is enthusiastic about something. I had noticed the word since coming to the University of Toronto three years ago, where my fellow graduate students use it to describe the enthusiastic, and usually top-performing, undergraduate students in their classes. Phrases like “I assigned extra reading, knowing that only the keeners would actually do it” are common in our discussions among ourselves. We graduate students are ambivalent about the keeners here at U of T. On the one hand, we appreciate their enthusiasm, but on the other that same enthusiasm can become tiresome, and their behavior sometimes verges on the sycophantic. (The joy of having a bright, motivated student who is destined to get an A wears off after the seventh frantic email on the night before an essay is due.)
Keener, or at least this particular usage of the word, is not well attested in the standard reference sources. It does, however, appear in the Oxford Canadian Dictionary of Current English, which defines it as: “Can. informal a person, esp. a student, who is extremely eager.”
Urban Dictionary (hardly authoritative, but still a useful resource for tracking current slang if taken with a grain of salt) provides several definitions, including this one from 2007:
(Canadian slang, noun) Individual eager to demonstrate knowledge or participate enthusiastically in school, church, seminars, etc. Like nerd, geek, brown-noser, smartypants, etc. but with more emphasis on willingness and enthusiasm, and less on social inadequacy, sycophancy, or natural ability.
And this one from 2005:
a person who is obsessed with school work. doesnt [sic] have much of a social life.
Other definitions from that source emphasize the sycophancy that keeners exhibit.
Green’s Dictionary of Slang traces keener back to 2001 defining it as: “(Can. juv.) a toady, a sycophant.” Given that most graduate students are in their late twenties, I would have to disagree with the label “juvenile.”
Dalzell’s and Victor’s New Partridge Dictionary of Slang push the usage back to 1984 and place it in the U.K., but provide no citations for these conclusions.
There is an older, better attested slang sense of keener meaning a sharp, alert individual, one who drives a hard bargain. This is an Americanism that dates to at least 1839. Citations of this sense in slang dictionaries tend to stop around the turn of the twentieth century, but given that keener is formed from a standard root, keen, and derived with the common suffix -er, there is no reason to think that people stopped using it, and the term was undoubtedly independently re-coined on many occasions. The current Canadian usage probably is a continuation of this older sense.
The slang term is unrelated to the word, from Irish, meaning one who sings a lament for the dead. English use of that keener dates to the eighteenth century and is from the verb to keen, caoin- in Irish, meaning to wail or lament.
“keener,” Green’s Dictionary of Slang, Chambers Harrap, 2010.
“keener, n.,” Historical Dictionary of American Slang, Random House, 1997, 2:338.
“keener, noun,” New Partridge Dictionary of Slang, Routledge, 2006, 2:1139.
“keener, n.,” Oxford Canadian Dictionary of Current English, OUP, 447.
“keener, n.2,” “keener, n.1,” “keen, v.2,” Oxford English Dictionary, second edition, 1989.
“keener,” Urban Dictionary, 2012.
Copyright 1997-2015, by David Wilton