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.

4 responses to “kerf

  1. Your post makes me wonder whether ‘kerf’ is related to ‘kern’, especially in the sense of carving the ends of pews and gargoyles.

    • The OED gives a few senses of “kern”, but none seems to be related to “kerf”. But, then, it doesn’t mention carving the ends of pews and gargoyles.

  2. What about the kerning of fonts in typography?

    • Apparently unrelated. It comes from kern meaning “a projecting part of a piece of metal type,” which comes from French carne meaning “projecting angle or nib of a pen,” in turn from Latin cardinem, “hinge.” (Yes, that’s the same root as in cardinal as in numbers and Catholic kahunas – and birds, named after said red-clad Rome bigwigs.)

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