Kenning the Germanic origin of the word cunning

“I kenning through Astronomy Divine
The World’s bright Battlement, wherein I spy
A Golden Path my Pencil cannot line,
From that bright Throne unto my Threshold lie.” (Edward Taylor)

This is the beginning of the poem known as “Meditation 8” from the work of the colonial American and Puritan poet/pastor Edward Taylor (1642-1729). A full reading of the poem may be found here.

I was first introduced to this poem in an Early American Literature class I took in college on works spanning from the early 1600s to about 1800, mostly focusing on Puritan Literature of the time. This included such works as Mary Rowlandson’s account of her abduction by the Native Americans among others. Though I remember very little of our discussion on the poem above by Edward Taylor, I do remember one thing quite clearly. The professor teaching the class was rather fond of the archaic English in the poem and noted to the whole class that, having knowledge of German himself, the word “kenning” derived from the German word kennen, meaning “to know”.

When it comes to etymology, my favorite dictionary of all time is the Online Etymology Dictionary (OED).

Online Etymology Dictionary

It has an entry for a related word, “ken”, in English (on one of several meanings for that word), even though I didn’t know about this word until rather recently.

ken (v.) “to know,” Scottish dialect, from Old English cennan “make known, declare, acknowledge” (in late Old English also “to know”), originally “make to know,” causative of cunnan “to become acquainted with, to know” (see can (v.)). Cognate with German kennen, Danish kjende, Swedish känna. Related: Kenned; kenning.

The OED has an entry for ‘kenning’ which it links to as well. Merriam-Webster has this entry for “ken” in its noun form:

1
: the range of vision
: sightview <’tis double death to drown in ken of shore — Shakespeare>
2
: the range of perception, understanding, or knowledge <abstract words that are beyond the ken of young children — Lois M. Rettie>

The opening lines of the poem mean then that Taylor knows through divine knowledge (I imagine “astronomy” here means sky watching and looking for heavenly signs) of a golden path that lies between some threshold and the bright throne (of God). Fortunately I stored this little nugget of knowledge away in my memory for the origin of this English word “kenning”.

I recently have been listening to the book The Adventure of English: The Biography of a Language by Melvyn Bragg in audio book format (which is superb, by the way, if you want to actually hear Old and Middle English spoken, the narrator has an extraordinary capability to pronounce words in obsolete dialects), and in the chapter on Chaucer it began discussing Chaucer’s use of French words that had been introduced into English (since the Norman Conquest up until his time) along side English’s own Anglo-Saxon Germanic words. Among a list of words used in The Priest’s Tale in the Canterbury Tales I heard one French-to-Anglo-Saxon synonym comparison that made my ears perk up. It was that the French word “ignorance” acted as a synonym for the Anglo-Saxon “uncunning”. Hmm, I thought. That’s interesting.

Cunning to me often has the connotation of slyness, cleverness, or even deviousness. I immediately made the concept associations in my mind for how “uncunning” could be paralleled with “ignorance” as meaning a lack of knowledge, since cunning or cleverness bespeaks knowledge, education, or skilled thought. Then I immediately began parsing my mental list of cognates. Cunning, I suddenly realized, from my obscure recollection of the meaning of “kenning” as meaning “to know/knowledge” and from comparing my more recently acquired knowledge of German verbs, derives from the Germanic kennen the same as the Puritan English word “kenning” does (“I kenning” in German would be “Ich kenne”).

How interesting, because I had thought that any traces of kennen as “to know” had been eradicated from the English language in modern speech since “kenning” is an obsolete word now (and I didn’t know about the word “ken” until recently). However it has unwittingly (ha! I just had to use another Germanic word: ‘wit/witting’ is related to the Old High German wizzan and modern German wissen, which also means ‘to know’, ‘be familiar with’) survived in the form of “cunning”. Cunning comes from the Old English cunnen which in turn comes from the Germanic kennen.

Speaking of the word cunning, it reminds me of a memorable passage in the Second Epistle to the Corinthians in which a sarcastic Apostle Paul says to his audience who wrongly doubted his sincerity:

 But be that as it may, I did not burden you. Nevertheless, being crafty, I caught you by cunning!” (2 Corinthians 12:16; NKJV)

Cunning indeed has the modern connotation of being crafty, but it originally derived from the Germanic root meaning of “to know”. The Online Etymology Dictionary has this entry for cunning:

cunning (adj.) early 14c., “learned, skillful,” present participle of cunnen “to know” (see can (v.1)). Sense of “skillfully deceitful” is probably late 14c. As a noun from c.1300. Related: Cunningly.

Well, hurray for etymology studies! Now ‘I kenning’ the origin of cunning! And you do too.

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