knee: The joint between the thigh and lower leg; an object or structure which resembles this joint

Official medallion of the British Anti-Slavery Society (1795)

I’ve got to say, on this “taking a knee” thing—I don’t know, maybe it’s got a broader history but it seems to be taken from The Game of Thrones—feels to me like a symbol of subjugation and subordination rather than one of liberation and emancipation.

Dominic Raab, UK Foreign Secretary: talkRADIO, 18 June 2020

Oh dear. That’s Dominic Raab displaying a remarkable (and, given his job, rather alarming) ignorance of the multithreaded historical symbolism underlying the gesture of “taking a knee”—there’s Martin Luther King’s prayer at Selma and National Football League player Colin Kaepernick’s kneeling protest during the American national anthem, as well as resonances that stretch across centuries, from the medallion of the British Anti-Slavery Society (at the head of this post), to the police officer kneeling on George Floyd’s neck.

The whole sorry episode was marvellously lampooned on Michael Spicer’s “The Room Next Door” channel on YouTube. (For those not familiar with his oeuvre, Spicer pretends to be a live off-screen adviser to politicians who are making particularly disastrous speeches.)

Raab also seems to think that there’s a popular television series called The Game of Thrones, but we’ll let that one slide.

However, there’s no doubt that the word knee, with its curious silent “k”, has featured more in the mass media recently than possibly in the entire previous history of journalism.

The silent “k” marks this out as being a Germanic word, along with a long list of other English words beginning with kn-: knight and knave and knob and knife and knell, and so on. The “k” used to be pronounced, in Old English and Middle English, but at some time during the sixteenth century, English speakers seem to have just become tired of saying it. Unfortunately, the spelling had recently become enshrined because of the invention of the printing press, so the “k” stayed in place to mock everyone subsequently trying to learn English as a second language. Other Germanic languages seem to have been quite happy to keep sounding the “k”—it’s still there in German Knie, for instance.

Knee, and its verb to kneel, are descended from a Proto-Indo-European word reconstructed as genu-, probably meaning “knee” or “angle”. Which evolved neatly into Greek gonia, “angle”, and Latin genu, “knee”.

Greek gonia gives us the -gon suffix used for geometrical shapes. A polygon has many angles; and we have, specifically, the common words pentagon, hexagon, heptagon, octagon, decagon and dodecagon for shapes with five, six, seven, eight, ten and twelve angles (and therefore sides), respectively. Possibly less well known are the enneagon (nine angles), hendecagon (eleven), quindecagon (fifteen) and chiliagon (a thousand). The tetragon (Greek, “four angles”) is more commonly called a quadrilateral (Latin, “four sides”). Tetragonism was the old sport in constructive geometry of trying to square the circle. Now that we know it is impossible, the word has drifted out of use. A trigon (“three angles”) is a triangle—the Greek version appears only in a variety of technical terms, ranging from astrology to anatomy.

An amblygon is a shape with an obtuse angle; an oxygon has an acute angle. The word diagonal literally means “across angles”—the diagonal of a square splits the angles at its corners. A goniometer is a device for measuring angles, and the gonion is the anatomical name for the angle of your jaw.

Latin genu gives us our adjectives genual, genicular and geniculate, which refer to things that are knee-shaped, or pertain to the knee. The genicular arteries form a network around the knee; the geniculate ganglion, in the facial nerve, has a knee-shaped bend to it. To genuflect is to “bend the knee”—that is, to kneel, usually in worship. Genuflexion is the act of genuflecting, but something genuflexuous is zigzagging—producing knee shapes in alternate directions. The art of heraldry keeps alive (just barely) the old word genuant, “in a kneeling posture”, but there is little use in English  nowadays for genouillère, the French technical term designating the complicated part of a suit of armour which protected the knee.*

Right Poleyn from Armour of Claude Gouffier (1501–1570) (MET LC-1994 390-004)

The French still use the word. But now it refers, much less glamorously, to an orthopaedic knee brace.

* Also called a poleyn. No-one knows why, but I thought I’d just mention it.

4 thoughts on “Knee”

  1. Re: the silent “k”.
    As you know I love the Just William books. William and his chums were very poor at spelling. They gave Henry the credence of being slightly better than the other three. One of the ways henry dispalyed this – was knowing that English contained silent letters. So, for example, when they decided to set up as Arthur and his knights – Henry made a sign
    “Gnights of the square table – rongs rited”

  2. I can see where Henry was coming from. The initial “gn” in English used to be pronounced too, but was ditched at the end of Middle English, while the Germans continue to pronounce the “g”.

    I never really got into the William books. William’s world was as impenetrable to me as that of Jennings and Darbishire and Billy Bunter. They all seemed to inhabit some sort of strange parallel universe.

  3. now there i have to demur. the examples you quote are both boarding school types. just william is a ruffian who goes to the local primary. he envies tramps and the kids from the east end who occasionally come and camp in the village. he does occasionally interact with upper middle class english life but it is usually lampooned.

  4. I’m afraid William’s life, in a leafy southern English village, seemed as thoroughly alien to me as the boarding-school antics of Jennings and Bunter. It was like reading one of Lucy Fitch Perkins’s “Twins” books, except without any of the explanations.

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