K is for Kenning: The Vagaries of Knowing

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Today’s strange thing is less about the word or thing itself and more about the growth and change of language and how strange English is in general in that sense, but I’ll be discussing that by talking about kenning.

According to Dictionary.com, ken is a noun meaning 1) Knowledge, understanding, or cognizance; mental perception, 2) range of sight or vision.

Also according to Dictionary.com, know is a verb meaning 1) to perceive or understand as fact or truth; to apprehend clearly and with certainty, 2) to have established or fixed in the mind or memory.  And knowledge is a noun that means 1) acquaintance with facts, truths, or principles, as from study or investigation; general erudition, 2) familiarity or conversance, as with a particular subject or branch of learning.

Both words date back to around 900 and came from Old English.  They grew through the centuries on parallel courses, however, I’m willing to be that fewer readers are familiar with the word ken and what it means than are familiar with the word know and its associated knowing and knowledge.

Use of kenning has fallen out of favor within the English language (at least in the regions of America I have a chance to interact with).  This happens to words all the time.  They fall out of usage or their meaning morphs over time.  It’s a natural feature of language, which is constantly evolving.  Take geek for example, the original use of the term was for a circus performer who bit the heads off chickens.  Now a geek is sometimes used as synonymous to nerd, and other times used to designate someone who is excessively interested in and knowledgeable about a given topic.

I find this process fascinating.  Especially when you can see it happening right in front of you.  I remember when geek was universally used as an insult, as was nerd.  These days both can be used with a positive connotation as well, it’s all about the tone of the person using the word now.

The constantly changing nature of language makes the difference between knowledge and kenning even more interesting to me.  Something that is beyond your ken is something outside your knowledge base.  There are so many words in the English language that are beyond my ken.  We have so many words and so many of them have multiple shades or meaning.  With time and study I could, in theory, learn every word in the English language and greatly enhance my knowledge.  Based on those sentences, what are the differences between kenning and knowledge?  Is there a difference?

It seems to me that the shade of meaning that was originally attributed to kenning and not to knowledge, and begun to be associated with knowledge now.  The dictionaries may not have caught all the way up on this, but that doesn’t mean the change isn’t happening.  The development of language is a strange and varied thing, but I find so interesting.

Can you think of a word that has had a change in meaning over your lifetime?  What did it used to mean and what does it mean now?

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