Thursday, June 18, 2020

Language of Confusion: Jointed

Hey, more body parts. It’s been quite a long time since I looked at any of these.

Knee comes from the Old English cneo, which was indeed pronounced with a hard K. All the words with the silent K used to have it pronounced, but basically, people got lazy and didn’t want to say it. It’s from the Proto Germanic knewa-, which is from the Proto Indo European genu-, which means knee or angle—it’s actually the origin of the -gon prefix you see at the end of shapes like hexagon! Because knees are at angles! It actually makes sense! More so than the pronunciation going from G to K to N. Although I suppose I kind of see it.

Continuing with the kn- trend, knuckle showed up in the mid fourteenth century as knokel as the noun referring to the body part, while the verb of it didn’t show up until the mid eighteenth century. Knokel did refer to the finger joint, but it also referred to any joint in the body, or even a lump or swelling. As for where it came from… ¯\_()_/¯ There is no Old English version of it, although some Germanic languages have similar words, like German having knöchel, meaning ankle. Apparently it literally means “little bone” and comes from the Proto Germanic knuk-, bone. It seems Modern English took it straight from the German without it going through Old or Middle English. How weird.

And speaking of ankle, it showed up in the fourteenth century, sometimes spelled with a C instead of a K, coming from the Old English ancleow, which also is just ankle. Remember how knee comes from the word for angle? Yeah, ankle does too, kind of. It’s from the Proto Indo European ang-/ank-, which means to bend, and is the origin word for angle. An ankle is also an angle!

Elbow showed up in the thirteenth century as a contraction of the Old English word elnboga, which meant elbow, and is such a funny sounding word that I’m disappointed we don’t use it anymore. It’s from the Proto Germanic elino-bugon, a mix of the Proto Indo European word el-, the word for elbow or forearm, and bheug-, to bend. That’s actually the origin word for bow as well. Um, both bows, like you do with your body and like you shoot arrows with. Anyway, elbow literally means arm bend.

Finally today, hip. And the part of your body is not related to hip as in cool or the exclamation (hip-hip-hooray!), which are from apparently different versions of the word hep. It’s also not related to the word for seed pods. The joint is from the Old English hype, which means hip, although I’m not sure on the pronunciation. That’s from the Proto Germanic hupiz, and no one’s sure where that word comes from. But it’s definitely not the other hips.

Tony Jebson’s page on the Origins of Old English


  1. What about bow ties and bows on packages?

  2. What gives? These kind of make sense.

  3. I'm kind of disappointed we don't sound out the Ks anymore. Although, it probably sounds silly.

    Genu? As in genuflect?

  4. My brain stopped at knuckle.
    "You have a knuckle on your face." Or would it be, "You have a knuckle in your face"?


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