The Grammarphobia Blog

An unknown quantity

Q: Over the last couple of weeks. I’ve noticed several instances of “unknow” used as an adjective. When I first saw it in print I thought it was a typo, but now I’m beginning to wonder if we’re witnessing the birth of a know-tion.

A: “Unknow” as an adjective is unknown in today’s English. I would bet the bank that any contemporary examples you’ve found are typos.

The Oxford English Dictionary has an entry for a word spelled “unknowe,” a participial adjective described as an obscure variant of “unknown.” Chaucer used it in his poem Troilus and Criseyde (1374): “Unknowe unkyst and lost that is un-sought.”

The OED describes the adjective as obscure, and doesn’t have any citations later than the 1500s.

No matter how you spell it, I don’t see any mention of “unknow” as an adjective in modern standard dictionaries. The most recent, as far as I can tell, is in a 1913 edition of Webster’s Revised Unabridged Dictionary, which defines the adjective “unknow” as meaning “unknown.”

My big unabridged Webster’s Second, published in 1956, has no listing for the adjective. It does, however, have entries for the verb “unknow,” used both transitively and intransitively. It’s defined as (1) “to be ignorant (of)” and (2) “to cease to know; forget.”

I don’t see the verb in more recent standard dictionaries, but the OED lists it with similar meanings.

The first citations for the verb in Oxford are from the writings of the medieval theologian John Wycliffe (circa 1380) and from Wycliffe’s translation of the Bible (1382).

The last published reference for the verb in the OED is from the poet Algernon Charles Swinburne, who used it in his poem “Hertha” (1871): “Love or unlove me / Unknow me or know / I am that which unloves me and loves; I am stricken, and I am the blow.”

Buy our books at a local store, Amazon.com, or Barnes&Noble.com.