A Collection of "K's"
Bill Long 10/26/08
Sometimes I find lists of rare or interesting words online that just invite me to look more closely at them. In some ways I feel I am "cheating" a bit here, since I am not coming up with each word on my own, but perhaps I can give either deeper knowledge of or pose some questions of/to some of the words in the list that will justify these essays. This page gives 23 words beginning with "k," which are illustrated by sentences using referring to Kafka. The words Lee Klein lists are: kaf, kaiserzinn, kakerlak, kalian, kamalayka, katun, keerdrag, kenlore, kenning, kentrokinesis, kerchunk, khur, kerslosh, kerswosh, ker, kerana, knackery, knismogenic, knout, kunstlied, kyestein, kynurenic, and kyriolexy. Before I comment on particular words, I can pare down this list a bit.
I have already written on kyestein and kalian. I can deal with kerslosh and kerswosh under the same concept/word, because the ker-prefix is a sort of intensifer for words expressing a crashing, smashing, plopping sound or movement--such as kerplunk, kerplop, etc. Then, the word kaiserzinn is misspelled; it is more familiar as Kayserzinn. A few of the words, such as kamalayka, seems to be a word that someone just "made up," with no attention to whether the word was ever used in the past. Then, there are some words that I had difficulty even finding much about, such as kerana. Even though the 1913 Unabridged had it (a Persian trumpet), I was unable to find any references that satisfied me that this was actually what it meant.
An Easy Word
Let me start with one of the words that I have known since seventh grade, and then move to one that is exceedingly difficult to pin down. I first came across knout (really knouter) in "The Most Dangerous Game," a short story by Richard Connell. Ivan was said to have been the "official knouter" of the great white czar. A knout is a kind of whip or scourge, very severe in its effects, formerly used in Russia as an instrument of punishment; thus a knouter punishes or whips with the knout.
Tracking Down a Really Hard One--Knismogenic
The web site I quoted above gives the following definition for knismogenic: "causing or provoking tickling sensations." Hm. I scratched my face for a while on that, since there was no Greek word that I knew underlying the English words "tickle" or "itch." But then, an online medical dictionary defined it the same way, with the note that the word knismos was Greek for "tickling." Other online sources, which are clearly trying to make up words, say that knismolagnia is a word meaning "sexual arousal and erotic gratification derived from tickling or being tickled." Everyone seems to think, then, that there is some Greek word "back there" referring to tickling. Well, there is and there isn't. And I need the rest of the essay to tell the story.
The word knismos does actually occur in a few contexts in Greek authors writing in the Roman Empire of the 2nd-5th centuries CE. An fairly obscure article on ancient Greek theater, "Phora, Schema, Deixis in the Greek Dance," by Prof. Lillian B. Lawler in a 1954 academic publication says that minor ancient authors used a number of terms to describe various forms of Greek dance. Those terms principally appeared in Julius Pollux (2nd Cent), Athenaeus (3rd Cent) and Hesychius (5th Cent). All seem to have had strong Alexandrian connections. The relevant work of each deserves a comment. First, Pollux wrote the Onomasticon, a Greek thesaurus of Attic synonymns and phrases, arranged according to subject matter, in ten books. In other words, lots of interesting and arcane pieces of data. Then, Atheneaus wrote the 15-book Deipnosophistae ("dinner-table philosophers"), which quoted nearly 800 writers from antiquity on all kinds of subjects connected with music, dance, dining, luxury and sexuality. Finally, Hescyhius, a grammarian, compiled, as this article tells us, "the richest lexicon of unusual and obscure Greek words that has survived," even though many of the 51,000 entires are marred or missing. Yet, it is considered a gold mine by classical scholars who want to name everything in the ancient world. We don't really know, however, if the words they introduced, as they relate to dance (the subject of knismos) were ever really used or were words that they or other Greek-o-philes invented in their spare time.
Just to give you an example of some of the other rather obscure terms--for dance movements. We have "hand flat down" and "seizing a club" and "fire-tongs," and many more. In any case, each of the three authors uses the word knismos. Lawler translates knismos as "the itch," which occurs in Hesychius s.v. (I guess he lists his words alphabetically). Athenaeus gives it in 14.618c. Then, The History of the Manners and Customs of Ancient Greece by James Augustus St. John, says the following: "The Heducomos was dance expressive of the outbreaks of joy, and the Knismos, represented the pinching, struggling, and quarrels of lovers" (p. 255). He cites Pollux iv.99.
Well, this presents us with an interesting and possibly insoluble tableau. The word, first of all, is obscure, even in antiquity. When we see it used (only three places?), we aren't really clear on what it means. Is it a sort of "foreplay" dance, as St. John would suggest? Or, is it more of an "itch," or uncomfortable movement, as Lawler tends to suggest? And, how do we know whether either of those really has anything to be said for it?
Let me take this one step further, at the risk of bringing "personal" stuff to the supposedly objective schoarly task. Dr. Lawler was a female classics professor in the mid-20th century in America. She was, from what I can ascertain, unmarried, as were many female Greek and Latin teachers in that day. Would it be too much to suggest that this female in a man's world, where women were accepted if they were technically interested in linguistic concerns, might have read the term "non-sexually" because it just wouldn't have been her "place" to read sexually? On the other hand, St. John, who wrote his book (1842) right in the middle of the romantic movement in England, might have been more inclined to see a sexual reference to knismos. But who was right? Who really knows? What we do know is that the medical profession, not known for its sensuality in expressing concepts, picked up on Lawler's reading of the term. Then, people who use the word today simply mimic the medical dictionary. But there is a story, as we see, that underlies the simplistic statements in a few online dictionaries today as to what knismos/knismogenic means. I would love to use the term because it sounds so cool, but I may want to give it a "St. John" twist. I don't suppose anyone will notice...
Well, this took me much longer than I thought it would. Let's turn to the "rest" of the "k" words.