Daily Archives: July 16, 2009

kerf

A noun that sounds rather like a sandbag hitting gravel, or a fisticuff in a scuffle, or your dad’s hand whacking the side of your head for your part in the kerfuffle. Or like the half-stifled cough you make after inhaling a bit of sawdust, which is closer to the meaning. It has a variety of resonances: curve, kerchief, cuff, carafe, kerb, even mirror suggestions of freak and maybe firkin. There’s that rough-and ready k with its notch, and on the other end the two bent-over letters, rf, like wheat stalks in a crop circle. One might even discern a trough down the middle, cut out between the k and the f down to the tops of the e and r. If that trough were a notch made by a circular saw, say, then it would be a kerf. Kerf can also refer to the cut end of a tree or branch, or even the bit that was cut off. Or should I say carved off… since carve is not only another resonance for this word but in fact a close cousin. Kerf comes from Old English cyrf, which comes from an ablaut version (thus probably a past-tense form) of the stem that also produced ceorfan, now known to us as carve. So they are cut from the same branch! But where carve starts with a curve, kerf has the straight cut. And what word comes most often before this one? That toothy saw.