The Grammarphobia Blog

Spellbinding letters

Q: I have some theories about words beginning with “wr,” “kn,” or “qu.” My impression is that “wr” words are generally related to twisting, specifically at the wrist, while “kn” words have to do with fingers (we knock with our knuckles). I’ve read that “qu” words were once spelled “cuu.” Perhaps ancient scribes got tired of writing three letters and turned them into two. I’d love any insights you have about our bizarre spelling.

A: Many words starting with “wr” have to do with twisting, though not all. And many  starting with “kn” are cousins to “knuckle.” Let’s begin with the “wr” words.

A prehistoric Indo-European root reconstructed as wer (meaning to turn or bend) is the ancestor of our words “wreath,” “writhe,” “wring,” “wrangle,” “wrench,” “wrinkle,” “wrist,” “wrest,” “wrestle,” “wrap,” and scores of others. 

(There are seven other Indo-European roots reconstructed as wer, with seven other meanings.)

Another Indo-European root, g(e)n, meaning to compress into a ball, is the ancestor of many Germanic words that start with “kn” and have to do with knobby projections or sharp blows.

This has given us “knuckle,” “knob,” “knock,” “knot,” “knoll,” “knife,” “knead,” and even a food name like “knackwurst.”

The words “knee,” “kneel,” and others come from another root, genu, meaning angle. And “knack” is of uncertain origin, but could be related to the German knacken, meaning to solve a puzzle. 

This information comes from the Chambers Dictionary of Etymology and The American Heritage Dictionary of Indo-European Roots (2d ed.), edited by Calvert Watkins.

If you’re interested in etymologies, the American Heritage book is worth having and it’s cheap enough ($13.60 in paperback from Amazon.com). Very enjoyable browsing!

But back to spellings. We’ve written blog entries in the past about why, for instance, a word like “knife” has a “k,” and why “gh” has different pronunciations in different words. The latest posting was last December.

And we’ve written about words beginning with the letters “sn” ( like “sneeze”), which often have something to do with the nose. 

As for words beginning with the “kw” sound that’s now spelled “qu,” the usual spelling in Old English, the language of the Anglo-Saxons, was cw, according to the Oxford English Dictionary.

As the OED explains, early Old English writings sometimes represented the “kw” sound as qu, an adoption of Latin spelling. However, the normal Old English spelling for this sound was cw. (It was also sometimes spelled cu and occasionally cuu.)

After the Norman Conquest in the 11th century, French and Latin qu spellings gradually worked their way into English. By the end of the 13th century, “qu” was the usual English spelling.   

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