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Knit / Knot

Don’t hunker, hanker!

Dear Word Detective:  I’ve been learning to tie knots in my old age just for fun. My wife is learning knitting and I realized that that craft is essentially serial knot tying. Are “knit” and “knot” versions of the same word? — Bruce Brantley.

That sounds like fun. Good, cheap fun, which is, of course, not what this economy needs. I want you two to put down your ropes and yarn this instant and go buy something you don’t want or need. How about a couple of those blanket things you wear, the ones that make you look like a giant Ewok? Home doughnut makers are big this year, and several companies are offering vacuum cleaner attachments for dogs. Dogs just love being vacuumed. Velcro denture tape? Solar-powered beer maker? Talking screwdriver? I bought five of those, and they’re awesome.

Never mind. You guys just keep knitting and knotting, and I’ll sit here musing over what a weird word “vacuum” is. OK, back to work. “Knot” and “knit” aren’t exactly versions of the same word, but they are closely related.

“Knot” is the more basic of the words, although it’s not really possible to say it came first because both words are so old. “Knot” first appeared in Old English with the meaning, still the primary one today, of “an intertwining of cords, ropes, etc., made in order to fasten something together or attach something to another object.” In Old English “knot” was “cnotta,” which came from Old Germanic roots, specifically “knutton,” to which we will return shortly. The general meanings of these words was “knot” as we use it today, but there are indications that a bit further back the word may have originally meant “lump” or “knob,” which makes sense since, if you tie a knot in a rope, you have indeed created a sort of lump.

Apart from its literal uses, especially in the names of the dizzying variety of knots invented over the centuries, “knot” has been used in a variety of extended and figurative uses. One biggie is described by the Oxford English Dictionary (OED) thus: “A piece of knotted string fastened to the log-line, one of a series fixed at such intervals that the number of them that run out while the sand-glass is running indicates the ship’s speed in nautical miles per hour; hence, each of the divisions so marked on the log-line, as a measure of the rate of motion of the ship (or of a current, etc.).” Modern ships do not, of course, carry sand-glasses or actual log lines (a rope attached to a small log of wood), but their speed (and that of the wind at sea) is still measured in “knots” (and “knots per hour” is, of course, redundant).

We also use “knot” to mean “a lump,” especially in a muscle or the like, a stressful situation is said to “tie us up in knots,” and the “knot” of a problem is the central point of contention. The most famous “knot” in historical mythology was the Gordian Knot, tied by King Gordius of Phrygia. Legend had it that whoever untied the complex knot would conquer Asia; Alexander the Great supposedly took a bold shortcut and cut through it with his sword. To “cut the Gordian knot” thus means to solve a problem with creative, decisive (and possibly not quite sporting) action.

“Knit,” as I mentioned above, also first appeared in Old English (as “cnyttan”), and also comes from Germanic roots, the same that produced “knot,” branching off from “knot” somewhere back around that Old Germanic “knutton.” The original meaning of “knit” in English was “to tie in or with a knot,” and people would say “knit a knot” as we say “tie a knot.” The modern sense of “form a close texture by interweaving loops of yarn or twine” dates back to the early 16th century. The tight weave of knitted fabric led to the use of “knit” to mean “draw closely together, make firm; concentrate or make compact” or “to grow closely together” as a broken bone eventually “knits” as it heals. “Knit” can also mean “to mend,” as Shakespeare famously noted in Macbeth (“Sleepe that knits up the ravel’d Sleeve of Care,” 1616). Bees clustering in a tight mass are said to “knit,” and when we are worried or angry, we “knit our brows” as our facial muscles tense. Personally, I’ve found that happens mostly when I watch TV news or read the internet. Or think too much.

Of course “knitting” with yarn is famous for its calming effects, so perhaps I just need to follow your wife’s example and knit a few mittens and scarves for the cats. But I’m still gonna keep my talking screwdrivers for company.


 Peak experience.

Dear Word Detective:  I have just recently discovered your column by virtue of being gifted your book and became an instant fan. Perhaps you can help me suss out the mystery behind one of my favorite songs? Shortly before his death Warren Zevon released an album including a song titled “MacGillycuddy’s Reeks,” which a quick Googling reveals to be a mountain range in Ireland. However, “reeks” seems only to refer to offensive odors rather than scenic hills. How, if at all, are these related? — Will Voorhies.

Thanks. I’m an instant fan of your first sentence, because your use of “gift” as a verb is going to drive the Usage Cops nuts. But when they come banging on your door, just point out that “gift” has been used as a verb since the 16th century by writers, including heavy hitters such as Henry Fielding and Elizabeth Barrett Browning (“The world must love and fear him Whom I gift with heart and hand,” 1844). Warren Zevon is on my short list of folks I really wish were still around, a list that also includes Hunter Thompson, Carl Sagan, Phil Ochs and Abbie Hoffman. Oh well. And I’ve always thought that history would have been different had Buddy Holly lived longer. I’m fairly certain he could have stopped the Beach Boys.

There are actually three “reeks” in English. The oldest, which first appeared in Old English, is “reek” as a noun meaning “a bad or noxious smell” and, as a verb, “to stink, to strongly emit a noxious odor.” Both the noun and the verb derive from ancient proto-Germanic roots, but followed very complex and twisting routes into English. The noun “reek,” for instance, comes from slightly different roots than the verb “to reek.” In any case, the original sense of “reek” centered on smoke from something burning (and the verb meant “to emit smoke”), but our modern “reek” covers nearly anything that smells very foul, even figuratively (“I’m certain he’s miserable and lonely. Dunwood House reeks of commerce and snobbery and all the things he hated most,” E.M. Forster, 1907).

We can treat the second kind of “reek” as a rest stop, because it’s an obscure noun meaning “seaweed” and it’s been obsolete since the 17th century.

That brings us to “reek” as found in “MacGillycuddy’s Reeks” on Zevon’s 2002 album “My Ride’s Here.” This “reek” is an Irish English noun meaning “a hill or mountain.” The title of the song refers to a striking mountain range in County Kerry, in the southwest corner of the Republic of Ireland. According to Wikipedia (caveat lector, as usual, but they do have some nice pictures of the range), MacGillycuddy’s Reeks was named for a clan that lived there, Mac Giolla Mochuda, which was eventually Anglicised to MacGillycuddy.

The “reeks” part of the name of the range does not refer to the smell of the mountains, which is probably quite nice, heather and all sorts of flowers and whatnot. This “reek” is an Irish form of the more familiar English word “rick,” meaning “a pile of something.” One again, things get a bit confusing here, word-history-wise, but it appears that both the English “rick” and the Old Irish form “cruach” (which became “reek”) came from the same Indo-European root (which also produced the equivalent “rook” in Dutch, “rauk” in Norwegian, and “rok” in Swedish).

In any case, “rick” first appeared in Old English meaning “a stack of corn, hay, etc.,” especially one formed into a neat shape and thatched for protection from the weather. “Ricks” in farmers’ fields were long a common sight in Britain, and provided impromptu shelter to travelers, fugitives, and the merely hopelessly lost in many novels (“That night she took refuge from the Samaritan … under a farmer’s rick,” Charles Dickens, Our Mutual Friend, 1865). In the US, a “rick” usually means a stack of wood cut to uniform measure (four feet high by eight feet long, according to the Oxford English Dictionary).

By the 17th century, all this hay and wood notwithstanding, “rick” had come into use in a more general sense to mean simply a pile of anything (“Mr. Bass … had seen the animal scratching among the dry ricks of sea-weed thrown up upon the shores,” 1807), although it seems most often used in reference to a pile of something deliberately piled and stored for later use (“The tubers stored in these houses are carefully assorted and sacked, and the sacks piled in ricks,” 1913).

Lastly, since someone is bound to ask, “suss” as you used it to mean “figure out” originated as police slang in the UK around 1953. It comes from “suspect” and originally meant “to suspect a person of a crime,” but it broadened to meaning “to imagine or surmise,” finally reaching its modern slang sense of “to understand or explain.”

Jerkwater reconsidered

Buckets of hogwash?

One of the things that make this column fun to write is the nearly instantaneous responses I get from readers. (The other things that make it fun are the cookies that come down the chute in my cage when I finish a column.) Anyway, when I first started writing this column back in the early 1990s, I’d get letters about what I’d written, real snail-mail letters with stamps and everything, weeks later — if at all. Thanks to the internet, however, I can now finish a column, send it by email, go downstairs to feed the dogs, and come back upstairs to find a nice email telling me I’ve just written something that is totally wrong. Actually, the vast majority of emails simply add helpful details to something I’ve written, and I urge readers to post those as comments when I put the column online.

Once in a while, however, a reader will send me information that completely changes my mind about something I’ve written, which brings us to today’s case. A couple of months ago, I wrote a column answering a reader’s query about the term “one-horse town,” meaning a small, backward burg. In the course of the column, I mentioned the equivalent 19th century epithet “jerkwater town,” and offered the following explanation: “Locomotives in the age of steam required regular replenishment with water, and in a small town lacking a water tower, the crew would have to form a bucket brigade and literally ‘jerk water’ from the nearest creek. By the late 1800s, ‘jerkwater’ had become an epithet applied to any thing or place considered ‘provincial, backward and insignificant’.” That is, in fact, the accepted origin of the term, echoed in dozens of dictionaries and etymological sources. The Oxford English Dictionary endorses this origin with two citations, from 1941 and 1945, that recount the “jerking water” explanation.

A week or so after I wrote that column, a reader named Robert J. Moyer sent me links to several sources that pointed out that the “bucket brigade” explanation really made no sense at all. Steam engines need two things: fuel (either wood or coal) to fire the boiler, and water, to fill the boiler and, as steam, to run the engine. A steam locomotive needs a lot of water, so many towns on its route would have water towers by the track, which made filling the tank on the tender simple. But we are talking hundreds of gallons of water, and the thought of railroad workers hauling it bucket-by-bucket from nearby streams is, quite frankly, a bit silly when you consider that train crews probably consisted of fewer than ten men, tops.

One of the links Mr. Moyer sent along was to a post about “jerkwater” on a blog called “Wordmall” (, run by Michael J. Sheehan, a retired college English teacher in Michigan, who rightly questioned the “bucket brigade” theory and provided some interesting links, as did his commenters. Long story short, it’s questionable whether railroaders themselves ever actually used the term “jerkwater town” for small, isolated towns; it was apparently more common to speak of “tank towns,” stops where the train stopped only to take on water from a water tower.

So if the “bucket brigade” story fails the practicality test and “jerkwater town” wasn’t authentic railroad lingo for a tiny town where the train stopped, where did it come from? This is where it gets truly interesting.

It turns out that steam locomotives did rely on “jerking water” to refill their tenders, but they did it without stopping at all. According to an article published in 1982 by the New York Central System Historical Society, several large rail systems that relied on steam locomotives outfitted them with remotely operated water scoops that could be lowered as the train passed through a station, scooping water from a shallow metal trough mounted between the track rails and passing it to the engine’s water tank. Such systems were apparently introduced around 1860, and, according to the article, there were still 19 such watering stations on the line between Harmon, NY, and Chicago in 1948. In the 19th century, this process was called “jerking water,” but by the early 20th it was known more felicitously as “scooping water,” and just before World War II it was possible for a train to travel at 60 miles per hour while “scooping” water.

This obviously puts a whole new light on “jerkwater,” but in a strange way it comes full circle and may explain the use of the term (by whoever used it, even if it wasn’t the actual train crews). A town where the locomotive “jerked water” from a trough between the rails was, by definition, a town where the train did not ordinarily stop at all, i.e., an unimportant, probably very small town. So while we may have lost that quaint story about a bucket brigade, we’ve gained a technically fascinating explanation of the phrase “jerkwater town.”