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shameless pleading

Beyond one’s ken

It’s the unknown unknowns that bite.

Dear Word Detective: “Beyond my ken,” a phrase that shows up from time to time in your columns, seems too-little used these days. The financial crisis alone, with its collateralized debt obligations and subprime mortgages, should have triggered an avalanche of its use. Assuming it has nothing to do with Barbie’s soul mate, what insight can you provide? Are things ever spoken of as being “within one’s ken”? — Steve Ford.

Hey, lookie there. My spell-checker doesn’t recognize “collateralized.” It’s not often that I envy my computer its innocence. You make a good point about the reluctance of many people to admit that the financial blowup-meltdown-whatsis was, and remains, “beyond their ken.” I was actually surprised back in 2008 at how much I understood about what was going on, but I guess I picked up a lot through osmosis while working at a Wall Street law firm many years ago. Back then they were trying to market derivatives based on credit card receivables, an idea which struck even me, a humble scrivener, as nuts. But that was before they invented credit default swaps, whereby you could win by losing billions. Someone needs to point out that all this chicanery is not, strictly speaking, capitalism.

“Ken” is an interesting little word. It first appeared in Old English as the verb “cennan,” meaning “to make known” or “to cause to know.” “Cennan” was the causative form of the verb “cunnan,” which meant “to know.” That “cunnan” also produced our modern English verb “can” (meaning “to be able to”) and is related to our modern verb “to know.” Incidentally, “can” originally meant simply “to know,” but over time took on the meaning of “to know how to do something,” and eventually acquired the modern sense of “to be able to do something” (“Becky can dance but Bob is hopeless”). The old sense of “can” meaning “to know” can still be found in the adjective “canny” meaning “sharp, wise” (and “cunnan” lives on in our modern “cunning”).

Meanwhile, back at “ken,” the verb “to ken” in modern English originally meant “to make known” or “to teach,” but by the 13th century “to ken” had also come to mean “to recognize or catch sight of” (“And now he faintly kens the bounding fawn, And villager abroad at early toil,” 1771). This sense progressed to include recognizing a particular person and then to be acquainted with someone or something, and so forth, until “to ken” came to mean “to comprehend or understand, to be aware of” just about anything. By this point you’ve probably noticed that “to ken” is now essentially synonymous with “to know,” and are wondering why you’ve never seen it used in any of these senses. That’s because “to ken,” once a mainstay of speech all over Britain, is now used almost exclusively in Scotland.

“Ken” the noun followed an evolution parallel to that of the verb “to ken,” with an interesting detour. The earliest use of “ken” in modern English, in the 16th century, was as a shortening of the Scots word “kenning,” which was a nautical term meaning “the range of ordinary vision at sea,” normally reckoned to be about 20 nautical miles. In later usage, “ken” evolved a broader sense of “range of vision” or “[in] sight or view of a place or thing” (“Tis double death to drowne in ken of shore,” Shakespeare, 1594). Eventually the figurative sense of “view” and “sight” gave “ken” the meaning of “perception or understanding; field of knowledge,” most often encountered today in the phrase “beyond one’s ken,” meaning “outside one’s field of knowledge” or “beyond one’s understanding.”

I’ve been poking around a bit, but so far I’ve been unable to find any published affirmative use of “ken,” as in “Yes, that’s well within my ken; let me explain it to you in short words, with pictures.” I’m sure someone, somewhere has said or written it, but for the most part a “ken” seems to be that area of personal knowledge that never contains answers to the really thorny questions, such as where all the world’s money suddenly went. Perhaps we should worry less about “too big to fail” and more about “too big to ken.”

1 comment to Beyond one’s ken

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