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The Knee

January 24, 2016

I promised I would put up a post on the subject of knees. I don’t have a lot to say about them but they have been on my mind recently as I have a sore knee from running; and when I googled my symptoms I found I had the self-explanatory condition of Runner’s Knee.

Knee is one of a small group of words which start with a silent k before an n; others being knife, knight, knit, knock, knave, knob and knackered. I’m not aware that the k is ever silent in any other position or next to any other letter.

Presumably the k used to be pronounced but gradually fell out of use. But here’s a funny thing. When I did English at university we studied Anglo-Saxon texts in our first year, and I recall that some of these words began cn, not kn. For example the Anglo-Saxon word for knight was cniht (though by Chaucer’s time it had become knyght). I note also that a French word for knife is canif. Why did cn- change to kn-? I don’t know.

Perhaps I will finish with a poem about a knee. It’s by the 19th century German poet Christian Morgenstern, and was translated with Lore Segal:


There wanders through the world a knee.

It’s just a knee, no more.

It’s not a tent; it’s not a tree;

It’s just a knee, no more.

There was a man once in a war,

Overkilled, killed fatally.

Alone, unhurt, remained the knee

Like a saint’s relic, pure.

Since then it roams the whole world, lonely.

It is a knee now, only.

It’s not a tent; it’s not a tree;

It’s just a knee, no more.

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