kenspeck, kenspeckle

Sometimes a word brings more – or other – than you can expect. It may present itself proudly as though its sense is conspicuous, but you are as like to feel henpecked as to ken it.

Take a look, for instance, at this pair, which are obviously related; they have the same origin and meaning, but one gets the little –le suffix, making a spatter of speckle from speck (which to me is as readily a cured meat as a spot, but that’s the way my mind goes). If you know what ken is, well, then you ken it. So does that mean this word means ‘know your bacon’ or ‘know your spots’?

No, that would make it mean more like ‘perspicacious’, when it actually means more like ‘perspicuous’. “As kenspeck as a cock on a church broach” is a Yorkshire saying quoted in an 1855 glossary cited in the OED. Just as these words look outstanding, their sense is ‘stand out’ – and not necessarily in a good sense. Just… be conspicuous. “He was… a kenspeckle figure in the neighbourhood,” someone had the temerity to write in The Lancet in 1971.

Is kenspeck a funky modification of conspicuous? It’s not impossible, but there are no known printed instances that show a link beyond the surmise from similarity. There’s actually a very closely resemblant word in Norwegian – kjennespak – and Swedish – känspak – and it has a related sense: ‘quick at recognizing’. But, as the OED says, “the change from the active to a passive sense makes difficulties.” Nonetheless, as nauseous as it may make you, such transformations have been seen elsewhere.

But why would the word come from a Scandinavian language to English? Don’t forget that northern and eastern England was invaded by, and under the control of, Danes and Norwegians around a millennium ago. Scandinavian languages have had a very substantial effect on English – notably on place names, but also on common usage (our pronoun they is taken from Scandinavian; the Anglo-Saxon third person plural was hie). That effect is more pronounced in the north of England.

Oh, yes. If you know either or both of these words already, then you’re probably Scottish or northern English. That’s really where they’re used, when they’re used at all. But I suppose you could press one of them into service, if you don’t mind that the word form is quite kenspeck but the sense is not so kenspeckle.

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