If you took a look in a nook, what would you see? And where would you be? Would it be a breakfast nook in a kitchen, or a book nook? Or some other nook and cranny? Or would it be an e-reader? I suppose you could read a cookbook on a Nook in a kitchen nook. Or you could look at a book that had every word ending in ook: book, brook, cook, chook, crook, forsook, hook, look, shook, took, kook… uh-oh, that last word doesn’t rhyme with the others.
Actually, neither did nook, originally. Until not much more than a century ago, the standard pronunciation rhymed it with Luke. And before that it had a long o: nok. But it finally nuked that and fell in line with the others; it didn’t want to be a kook.
What is a nook? It’s easy enough to picture, at least sketchily, in your mind’s eye. It’s a cozy little corner, an architectural diverticulum perhaps – a secluded place where you can escape from the madding crowds, even as they flow by (like trains rushing past in a tunnel where our heroine has flattened herself into the merest nook in the wall). A corner to wedge into when cornered by life. A quaint and curious dead-end byway in the village or countryside. A nook that is by a chimney or fire is an inglenook. A nook is to a person – especially a bookish introvert – as a small cardboard box is to a cat: it contains you comfortably in its hard but open embrace. It is a place where you can hide from a shnook or shelter from a Chinook or just hook up with a good book, a place where you can simply say to the world, “No, OK?”
If that seems bearish, well, think of Nanook: an English rendering of nanuq, the polar bear. But are there nooks in the Arctic? The great barren landscape, open and windswept, pimpled by pingos and reflected by frozen lakes, and at least formerly dotted by igloos, which, being circular, are apparently lacking in nooks… No, but there are always corners and nestling spots in everything, and just by the way some of those Arctic islands are exceptionally mountainous.
Where did nook come from? It’s uncertain – some long-forgotten historical nook, or nok anyway; it’s probably Norse. It has meant an assortment of things, but first and foremost a corner, seen and taken separately from the rest of the object, edifice, or lot. There is often a connotation of out-of-the-way-ness. It can be a triangle of land, too, and sometimes has even named a triangle jutting into the sea. And aside from being a corner of a yard, a nook has been a quarter of a yard, too: a yard being a standard measure of 50 acres, a nook was 12½ – or, elsewhere and at other time, 20.
It serves well, though, this word, wherever it came from. It is short and presses like a pillow into a corner: the soft /n/, the retreat to the back of the mouth /ʊ/, the abrupt stop against the hard wall at the back /k/; the shape of the book in hand n, the eyes (with glasses?) looking at it oo, the corner itself k. Kindle a fire and kindle some interest: this secluded nook is a portal to a world of imagination and escape; it is the corner of the mind’s eye.