I almost always look away when I unknot a knot. I let my fingers find it, feel the way, untangle, seek the loose parts and the windings, pull. The sight of an unknotting is always so… messy. It seems like there’s more there than there is. It always looks impossible.

All of life is tying knots and unknotting. Some ties that bind are blest, and we want them to stay strong. Some hold sails in place; some keep ships from drifting and window-washing stages from plummeting. But some keep hands and arms straining behind backs. Some hold legs together so they cannot run. Some help one person take another where they do not want to go.

Some knots are held together by friction. Threads meet threads and, though their paths are different, they come together and can’t ignore each other, can’t let go. Others hold by resistance. They will not let a thing go as long as their fibres have enough… fibre.

Some knots are ugly, yes, but beautiful knots are tidy and fascinating. Loose ends, on the other hand, are free but may seem sloppy. Nonetheless, sometimes you have to get from one to the other: sometimes you must unknot. And you can’t always have Alexander come and swing his sword to cut the knot as he did in Gordion. Some cords must stay whole.

Every year at the office, we would decorate the Christmas tree. Every year, this started with the untangling and unknotting of the strands of decorations. One year, a beautiful string of miniature gift boxes had gotten so knotted that I spent more than a half an hour unknotting it, pulling each twist and tangle apart, until at last it was a long lovely spangling string of presents. The next year, a colleague pulled it from the box and, finding it knotted again, simply pulled it apart, snap, snap, snap. Then we had many small boxes, utterly disconnected from one another and never again to be related, and we had a pile of knots that were still tied and would always remain tied, disconnected connections, nothing but a pile of trouble rubble on the floor. I will never not be sad about that.

This word, unknot, seems to have a knot in it. Consider: if you spelled it as we say it, it would be unnot. Then you wouldn’t have that k in the way, standing like a post with two ropes tied to it, daring you to foolishly pronounce it. But if it were unnot, we would more likely say the nn just as /n/, as in tunnel and linnet. So the k, ungainly as it is, serves as a knot not keeping the two together but keeping them distinct while together.

Of course the k is not a knot; it goes with knot. And in the mists of history it was pronounced, too. In Old English the word was cnotta, and you would say the c as “k”; it came from the same Germanic source as German Knoten, Dutch knot, and Swedish knut, among others, all of which keep the “k.” The Proto-Indo-European source is speculated to be *gnod-, which is also the source of Latin nodus, ‘knot’, source of node and nodule and the French word for ‘unknotting’, dénouement. English speakers are not the only ones who dropped the stop at the start. Be we can still see it there, a decorative hitch.

When I watch the world, I see many things, big and small, being unknotted. Some are bends and splices that hold people together, and hitches that make things function, and their undoing will hasten our own undoing; we should be glad they are so hard to pull apart. But there are also binding ropes centuries old that are at last being let free, and no Alexander can come and slice, because the rope that was used to hold captive will be needed to hoist sail. The slow, messy process of pulling apart with hands and fingers takes time and looks terrible while it is happening, but we cannot not unknot.

7 responses to “unknot

  1. That was Alexander who cut the Gordian knot, “knot” Hercules!

  2. Many years ago, in a maths course, one of our professors treated a topic called “When is a knot not a knot?”

  3. I hope the person that tore apart the string of boxes was fired! Or at least had the boss light a fire under them that they should unravel problems and not burn bridges.

  4. Brilliant and useful analogy for our times, historical and future.


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