The Silent K

By Sharon

One common spelling error is omitting the K at the beginning of words where it is silent (example: nick-nack instead of knick-knack). The origins of silent K are difficult to pin down. What we do know is that the k wasn’t always silent, especially in words of Germanic origin. Just as it is in German, the k was actually pronounced and many of the words which now have silent k originally began with that distinctive clicking sound. My high school teacher made a point of this when teaching us Chaucer.

However, some time after the Chaucerian era, the k sound disappeared from the kn combination. There is speculation that it suddenly became hard to pronounce, and was just one of many linguistic changes after the Great Vowel Shift. I haven’t found any corroboration for this theory.

Here’s a partial list of words with a silent K. Feel free to add yours.

  • knack
  • knacker
  • knapsack
  • knave
  • knead
  • knee
  • kneel
  • knell
  • knelt
  • knew
  • knick-knack
  • knickers
  • knife
  • knight
  • knit
  • knob
  • knock
  • knoll
  • knot
  • know
  • knowledge
  • knuckle
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15 Responses to “The Silent K”

  • OldSailor

    Good collection. Nothing more to add.

  • Maeve

    I’m not

  • temp-

    thanks!

    if you dont mind guys, i would like to see an explanation to the silent “ed” after regular verbs past tense, i’m still confused about that

  • Maeve

    In old English the letter c stood for two sounds: [k] as in come and [ch] as in church.

    The word knock comes from OE cnossian “knock, pound.” The word knee comes from cneo, “knee.”

    The cn spelling changed to kn under the influence of French spelling conventions brought in by the Normans.

    Cn came to be written kn, but the pronunciation remained the same until the 17th century. That’s when the [k] stopped being pronounced. The spelling, however, had become fixed.

    Talking about “silent” letters can be confusing. A better way (I think) to learn the spelling of words beginning with kn is to think of kn as a distinctive phonogram, simply an alternate spelling for the sound [n].

  • Maeve

    temp,
    Have you read this post on the -ed spelling:

    http://www.dailywritingtips.com/mind-your-eds/

  • Hummingbird

    I have one,

    Knur: a hard excrescence (as on a tree trunk) : gnarl

  • Hummingbird

    Another three,

    knout: a whip used for flogging ..

    knops: a small decorative knob or boss..

    knobby: having knobs on the surface, or shaped like a knob.

    coming back.. :p

  • Benjamin Baxter

    knock is on there twice.

    While you’re at it, might as well change the second one to knockers, as in what.

    (Think Mel Brooks.)

  • Sharon

    Thanks for the additions everyone, and for the additional info, Maeve.

  • M

    There’s a chain of shops in the UK that sells doorknobs and door knockers.
    It’s called Knobs and Knockers. I see a business venture for porn shops just next to these shops.

  • Jokenon

    Ummm,is somebody here?

  • Sally Montgomery

    why, oh why do people insist on saying “work colleague” instead of the correct terminology “colleague”. As to insert the word “work” before hand is superfluous. This aberration is even occurring in the media, BBC and ITV have both been guilty lately.

  • peter willemse

    are there any words starting with the silent-k that contains. oo,ee,th,ch,sh. thanx. please inform via email

  • John

    There’s also “knap”, which means to chisel stone (esp. flint) to make tools or weapons. It can also refer to the crest of a hill. “Belas Knap” is a prehistoric burial chamber situated on a hill crest. I have even climbed up it and checked that.

  • Darcy

    I notice that only one word in the list has the vowel U after the KN. I know people, of German ancestry, who have the last names Knutson and Knuffman and both are pronounced with the K sound. (Kuh noote son) I wonder if there are other examples with the U vowel? Oh, and Knute as a man’s first name has the silent K!

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