Of nights, naves and nickerbockers

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The Independent Online
I am very glad to welcome back the greatest living authority on modern English usage, Professor Wordsmith, who has agreed yet again to drag himself out of the saloon bar and tackle your queries about this wonderful language of ours and the way it works, or very often, of course, the way it doesn't work properly at all.

All yours, Prof!

I am often puzzled by the presence of words in English beginning with kn- or gn-, especially as the k- and g- are not pronounced. The English language doesn't like having several consonants in a row. I mean, you don't get words in English full of consonants like those African names like Mpbwanga ....

Professor Wordsmith writes: Yes, you do, north of the border. McStay has four consonants in a row, for a start. When the first name ends in consonants as well, you get more piling up. In the name "Ralph McTell", you've got five consonants in a row. L-F-M-C-T ....

Nevertheless, why DO we still have words beginning with kn- and gn- when the k- and the g- are never pronounced? I am thinking of words like knuckle and gnome. What's the point?

Professor Wordsmith writes: There is no point. Spelling is not meant to have a point.

But isn't spelling meant to provide a guide to the way things are pronounced?

Professor Wordsmith writes: Certainly not. Spelling is a guide to the way words USED to be pronounced. All these words beginning with kn- like knave and knight come from similar Germanic words and the k- used to be pronounced. Indeed, the Germans do still pronounce the k- on the equivalent words like "Knabe" and "Knecht".

Still, at least it's a useful way of distinguishing between words beginning with k- or g- and the same word without a k- or g-, isn't it?

Professor Wordsmith writes: Well, it would be if there were but there aren't. There is no word "nuckle" or "narled" or "nickerbocker" or even "nick-nack".

What about "knight" and "night"?

Professor Wordsmith writes: OK, wise guy. I grant you that one exception. But when will you ever be likely to confuse "knight" and "night"? I challenge you to come up with a sentence in which the two might be confused!

All right, how about this ... "I was placed next to Sir Edward Heath at dinner and again at coffee afterwards. It was undoubtedly the most boring knight of my life ..."

Professor Wordsmith writes: Hmmm. Well, the grammar is dodgy, but I'll give you a point there. Incidentally, it is not quite true to say that kn- and gn- are never pronounced. I can think of one current word beginning with kn- in which the k- is always sounded.

I bet you can't.

Professor Wordsmith writes: Knesset.

Hmmm ... yes, your point, I think. Well, I can think of a word beginning with gn- in which the g- is sounded.

Professor Wordsmith writes: I bet you can't.

Gnocchi.

Professor Wordsmith writes: Ah, no you're wrong there! The g- is not actually sounded. It is just a symbol of nasalisation, so that we know to pronounce it "nyokki" and not "nokki". Look, can't we get away from these damned kn-'s and gn-'s?

Certainly. Here's a knotty question for you (and I don't mean "naughty"). I saw a sign the other day on a private estate saying, "No Hunting" and "No Shooting" and all that nonsense, and then underneath it said "No Trespassing Without Permission". Now, this doesn't make sense to me. How can you trespass WITH permission? I mean, trespassing is entering a place without permission, so how can you do it WITH permission? The action of entry is exactly the same, but because permission is granted, it ceases to be trespassing. Therefore I would argue that it is impossible to trespass with permission, and that if a trespasser is given the nod to continue his entry, his action automatically becomes something else. But what? What IS the word for trespassing after permission has been given?

Professor Wordsmith writes: Hmm. Interesting one. Difficult, that. Hmmmm ... Tell you what, let's have some more questions about words beginning with kn- and gn-!

I think I have thought of a word beginning with gn- when the g- actually is sounded. Isn't the initial g- pronounced on the word "gneiss", meaning the rock of the same name?

Professor Wordsmith writes: No. It is pronounced "neiss". That is why you sometimes hear the following conversation between geologists in the field."Hey, look at this weird rock here!"

"It's gneiss." "Yes, isn't it?"

Have you actually ever heard that exchange?

Professor Wordsmith writes: Gno.

Professor Wordsmith will be back again soon. Keep these queries rolling in!

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