*gno- (part i)

Mid twentieth-century Objectivist poet George Oppen, known for his populist and phenomenological concerns, writes in section 31 of his masterpiece, Of Being Numerous:

Oppen, "Of Being Numerous"
Oppen, “Of Being Numerous.” New Directions Books.

Indeed, there is a lot going on here. But there is more to Oppen’s connection between knowledge and nobility than a poetic, perceptual, and epistemological one. There is an etymological one.

I’m not trying to be cunning in making this uncanny connection, even if it could seem a bit academically uncouth, abnormal, or even a bit quaint. But I can, I’ll have you note, and I don’t think it’s beyond your ken (and you’re pretty keen), so I’ll narrate so, for all these words are cognate to know.


Last post, we looked at the surprising origin of the suffix –lock. We entertained, too, the possibility that the suffix explains the second part of the word knowledge. The first part, of course, is know. What do we know about know?

Old English had cnaw, Proto-Germanic had *knew-, and Proto-Indo-European *gno- and *gen-, among other base variations. The root is simple: It means “to know,” but, boy, did it go on to accomplish a lot. I can’t pretend to be exhaustive, so here are some highlights.


Let’s start with the can family, descended down the Germanic branch of *gno- and yielding, ultimately, can, couldcunninguncouth, cannyken, con, and keen:

  • Can, as in, “Yes we can,” is a widespread Germanic word and took the form cunnan in Old English. Now, it’s a modal auxiliary verb but is rooted in the sense of “to have learned” and “to come to know,” thus “to be able.” It is connected to *gno- and *gen– via “to know how” to do something.
  • Could is technically the past tense of can but also expresses indefinite possibilities. In Old English, the past tense of cunnan was cuðe, and the l came about by analogy to words like would and should in the 16th century.
  • Some cite cunningoriginally meaning “learning” or “widsom,” now a noun and adjective naming sly skill and artfulness–as the present participle of cunnan (think run and running), though the Oxford scholars link it to the Old Norse kunnandi. Old Norse has kunna, “to know,” a close cousin of can.
  • Cunnan‘s past participle was cuð, meaning “known” or “familiar.” It became couth, which really only survives in the negative, uncouth, which evolved from “unknown” to “unsual” to “awkward” to “unrefined.” A clipped version, unco, is Scottish and Northern English.
  • Canny comes to us from Scottish English. Among other meanings, it started out as “cautious” and “sagacious” and came to mean “clever” and “gentle.” It corresponds to cunning, and is an adjective (and occasional adverb) formed off of can using the –y suffix. We know it best in the form of uncanny, which evolved from “malicious” to “unsafe” to “weird.” There’s also the Scottish English ca’canny, joining ca’ (clipped from call, which could mean “to drive” or “proceed”) and canny; so, “to drive carefully.” It came to mean “to work slowly.”
  • Ken, which I’d guess is becoming fast frozen in the phrase “beyond my ken,” was “to make known” in Old English. It’s technically a causative form of cunnan. As a verb, it survives in Scottish English. It was also once a nautical term for “range of sight,” measuring distances at sea. Kenning, if you’ve ever studied Beowulf, is related.
  • Con may evoke con artists or conventions, but it is also an obscure verb meaning “to learn” or “study.” It is from a variant of cunnan.
  • Old English had cene, meaning “brave,” “wise,” and “fierce.” Later, it described a sharp edge or taste, going on as metaphor to mean “acute” and “enthusiastic.”And it has given English keen. It’s quite the word. Eyesight can be keen. So can blades and minds. Interests can be keen, as can be sensory experiences. We’re not certain, but Germanic cognates and roots along with an old connection between bravery and skill point back to that Proto-Germanic root of *gno-, kunnan, “to know.”

Ability, possibility, craftiness, appropriateness, vision, learning, all kinds of sharpness–none of these are possible, *gno- teaches us, without knowledge.

In part 2, we’ll pick up with what Latin did with *gno-, and, in turn, all the fun we’ve had with it.

m ∫ r ∫ 


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