Don’t hunker, hanker!
Dear Word Detective: I’ve been learning to tie knots in my old age just for fun. My wife is learning knitting and I realized that that craft is essentially serial knot tying. Are “knit” and “knot” versions of the same word? — Bruce Brantley.
That sounds like fun. Good, cheap fun, which is, of course, not what this economy needs. I want you two to put down your ropes and yarn this instant and go buy something you don’t want or need. How about a couple of those blanket things you wear, the ones that make you look like a giant Ewok? Home doughnut makers are big this year, and several companies are offering vacuum cleaner attachments for dogs. Dogs just love being vacuumed. Velcro denture tape? Solar-powered beer maker? Talking screwdriver? I bought five of those, and they’re awesome.
Never mind. You guys just keep knitting and knotting, and I’ll sit here musing over what a weird word “vacuum” is. OK, back to work. “Knot” and “knit” aren’t exactly versions of the same word, but they are closely related.
“Knot” is the more basic of the words, although it’s not really possible to say it came first because both words are so old. “Knot” first appeared in Old English with the meaning, still the primary one today, of “an intertwining of cords, ropes, etc., made in order to fasten something together or attach something to another object.” In Old English “knot” was “cnotta,” which came from Old Germanic roots, specifically “knutton,” to which we will return shortly. The general meanings of these words was “knot” as we use it today, but there are indications that a bit further back the word may have originally meant “lump” or “knob,” which makes sense since, if you tie a knot in a rope, you have indeed created a sort of lump.
Apart from its literal uses, especially in the names of the dizzying variety of knots invented over the centuries, “knot” has been used in a variety of extended and figurative uses. One biggie is described by the Oxford English Dictionary (OED) thus: “A piece of knotted string fastened to the log-line, one of a series fixed at such intervals that the number of them that run out while the sand-glass is running indicates the ship’s speed in nautical miles per hour; hence, each of the divisions so marked on the log-line, as a measure of the rate of motion of the ship (or of a current, etc.).” Modern ships do not, of course, carry sand-glasses or actual log lines (a rope attached to a small log of wood), but their speed (and that of the wind at sea) is still measured in “knots” (and “knots per hour” is, of course, redundant).
We also use “knot” to mean “a lump,” especially in a muscle or the like, a stressful situation is said to “tie us up in knots,” and the “knot” of a problem is the central point of contention. The most famous “knot” in historical mythology was the Gordian Knot, tied by King Gordius of Phrygia. Legend had it that whoever untied the complex knot would conquer Asia; Alexander the Great supposedly took a bold shortcut and cut through it with his sword. To “cut the Gordian knot” thus means to solve a problem with creative, decisive (and possibly not quite sporting) action.
“Knit,” as I mentioned above, also first appeared in Old English (as “cnyttan”), and also comes from Germanic roots, the same that produced “knot,” branching off from “knot” somewhere back around that Old Germanic “knutton.” The original meaning of “knit” in English was “to tie in or with a knot,” and people would say “knit a knot” as we say “tie a knot.” The modern sense of “form a close texture by interweaving loops of yarn or twine” dates back to the early 16th century. The tight weave of knitted fabric led to the use of “knit” to mean “draw closely together, make firm; concentrate or make compact” or “to grow closely together” as a broken bone eventually “knits” as it heals. “Knit” can also mean “to mend,” as Shakespeare famously noted in Macbeth (“Sleepe that knits up the ravel’d Sleeve of Care,” 1616). Bees clustering in a tight mass are said to “knit,” and when we are worried or angry, we “knit our brows” as our facial muscles tense. Personally, I’ve found that happens mostly when I watch TV news or read the internet. Or think too much.
Of course “knitting” with yarn is famous for its calming effects, so perhaps I just need to follow your wife’s example and knit a few mittens and scarves for the cats. But I’m still gonna keep my talking screwdrivers for company.