Knight, knife, and “kn” words

Kneed to know.

Dear Word Detective: My son, who is ten, and likes to ponder the nature of things, particularly things involving weaponry, recently asked me why a “knight” is called that, and does it have anything to do with “knife”? I applauded his creative problem solving, pointed out that it was unlikely, and promised to check your site when I got to work. To my great surprise, this issue is not addressed in your archives. So what’s up? Why is a “knight” a “knight” … and if that’s too easy, feel free to tackle the greater question of why we have words that begin with a “k” we don’t say? — Mother of a kid with unusually good spelling skills.

That’s a very sharp question for a ten year-old, and it’s good to hear that someone that age has unusually good spelling skills, because it seems like the entire adult world has definitely lost the thread on that score. Misspellings are rife on the internet, of course, but lately I’ve noticed a slew of mangled spellings in the “crawl” at the bottom of the screen on cable news channels. And, this being June, I’ve given up being appalled at all the signs around town offering “congradulations” to this year’s high-school graduates. I guess somebody thinks the words are related. Somebody is wrong.

Today when we hear the word “knight” we usually think of some dude in a metal suit galloping towards another guy dressed like an air-conditioner, or perhaps the King Arthur’s Knights of the Round Table being chivalrous or saving some damsel in a pointed hat. (Hey, most of my historical knowledge came from Fractured Fairy Tales, ok?) And if we follow celebrity news even casually, some of us are regularly flabbergasted by “knighting” of actors and pop stars by the Queen.

But the first “knights” were not gallant warriors in the service of a King or Queen. The source of our modern English word “knight” is a Germanic root meaning simply “boy, young man,” which became our Old English word “cniht.” Eventually, “cniht” took on the more specific meaning of “a boy or lad employed as a servant” and, a bit later, “any male servant.” Along the way the “cn” of “cniht” became “kn” and the modern spelling “knight” evolved.

In the Middle Ages, “knight” became a military rank held by men pledged in service to a particular king or queen, usually having first served an apprenticeship as a page and squire. This is the “knight” most people think of, clad in armor and glowing in valor, slaying dragons, dastardly foes, and the occasional ungrateful serf in Hollywood epics. Of course, all that riding around slaying was sweaty work, so in the 16th century it became possible for members of the nobility to be dubbed a “knight” by the local monarch without ever wielding a sword, much the same way campaign contributors become ambassadors today. And that, folks, is how we ended up with Sir Paul McCartney.

As for why we don’t pronounce the “k” in words beginning with “kn” (knight, knife, knit, knee, knot, knock, know, et al.), the answer is that it’s too just much trouble. Seriously. Most of these words come from Germanic roots, and the “k” sound is still pronounced in “kn” words in most Germanic languages (e.g., German, Swedish, and Dutch). Up until the 17th century we observed this practice and actually pronounced “knee,” for instance, as “k’nee” and “knife” as “k’nife.” But sometime in the 1500s we started dropping that “k” sound, probably because folks simply found that “kn” sound a bit clumsy to pronounce. Whatever the reason, this “silent k” quickly spread among English speakers, and now it’s permanent. Interestingly, it’s only because this change in pronunciation took place relatively recently that our spelling of these words hasn’t caught up to the pronunciation, although in some cases (e.g., knight, knot, know) eliminating the “k” would cause confusion with other English words.

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