Word of the Day: Knotty

By Daniel Scocco

Knotty is an adjective used to describe something with many knots. It can also be used figuratively to express something difficult, intricate or complex.

For several months, the future of those sleek Jaguar saloons and robust all-terrain Land Rovers, symbols of a once-great British motor industry, seemed to hang in the balance as Tata, parent of Jaguar Land Rover (JLR), and government officials wrangled over the knotty issue of financial support. (The Economist)

Analysts see a chance of getting a franchise-focused bill passed into law this year. That’s unlikely, though, if legislation is broadened to include such knotty topics as indecency and wireless spectrum allocations. (Business Week)

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2 Responses to “Word of the Day: Knotty”

  • Brad K.

    My waterbed headboard was made of knotty pine. That is, a board specifically picked because it was full of knots, chosen as an aspect of appearance. Usually a board is preferred that is free of knots (a cross section of a limb, since outgrown by the trunk of the tree), because the knot introduces weakness in the board.

    I like to think that “knotty” as a descriptor came from the wood workshop. Before power machinery, a board slightly too wide or thick would be planed down to a precise dimension. Only, wood planes are hand held devices, with a very sharp blade, adjusted very precisely.

    And when the blade of the plan is sliding down the board, gracefully parting the grain and peeling off onion-skin thick slices or respectably heavy gouging – until you hit the knot. The grain of wood no longer lies along the board, the density of the wood is no longer uniform in the direction of travel. Sap may have gathered to stick to the glossy sole of the plane, or hardened to a surprising degree. Stopping the plane mid-board is always a disappointment, as the blade breaks off the curling wisp of the removed material. Restarting the operation mid-board is seldom as graceful and smooth as a full-length pass; a gouge is likely where the blade stopped, another likely where the repairing stroke begins.

    A knot usually stops the plane. With ill luck, you might have to clean sap off the plane to operate smoothly against the board again. You might also damage the blade, turning or breaking off a small section of the blade – resulting in a gouge or ridge following the plane.

    Now that we use power equipment, the chance of blade damage and gouges and ridges are still a likely hazard of working the knotty board.

    Perhaps it is the dismay and frustration of the craftsman over damage to the blade of his tool, over having to divert time from the work at hand to re-dress and possibly rebuild his tool. When dealing with a fundamental difficulty with unexpected intrusions of adamant elements, requiring that the tools – the arguments and beliefs – be reworked, maybe repaired, that earn such difficulties the accolade of a knotty problem.

    Or not.

  • John

    @ Brad K.

    This is great. The fact that its material is drawn from something as workaday as a workshop esp. is impressing. It reminded me of the quote that says art is the making of the familiar strange. The way it captured that moment of frustration when the plane gets stuck and the stroke broken is striking. To write it like this, you yourself should have gone through it. The same thing happens when the saw seizes. The reason these experiences are jarring and intensely felt is their effect do not remain only in the peripheral nervous system but it reaches the brain. You almost feel it when a leak springs in your brain and a certain quanta of energy spurt out.

    Though, the way you built the argument is logical and the argument internally consistent, a very important facet of knotty is missing. What makes something knotty is, it is determined by more than one factor and there is a tradeoff between them. And you cannot attend one factor at a time since a knotty problem is not amenable to one thing at a time kind of simplification. A knotty problem is complex not linear. A moderate caught between two or three extremist groups is facing a knotty problem, when the extremists in their invincible ignorance are not acknowledging the knottiness of the problem or are trying to cut the proverbial Gordian knot.

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