The Grammarphobia Blog

Bilingual education

Q: My Danish stepmother is completely bilingual, with one exception: she uses the phrase “not that I know to” instead of “not that I know of” when speaking English. It would be interesting to understand where this usage comes from.

A: There’s a verbal phrase in Danish, kende til, that means to “know about.”

But someone attempting a literal translation into English might render kende til as “know to.” That’s because the Danish verb kende means to “know” and the preposition til frequently means “to.”

Louise Møhl, a cultural officer with the Danish Consulate in New York, provided us with a couple of Danish-to-English examples of these terms used in the first-person singular:

Jeg kender ham fra mit arbejde. = “I know him from work.”

Det kender jeg ikke noget til. = “I don’t know anything about that.”

As for til, Ms. Møhl said, it “has many meanings in Danish depending on the situation.”

When it’s not part of the expression kende til, the preposition til can mean “to” (perhaps its most frequent sense), “of,” “for,” “about,” “toward,” “from,” or “at.”

Incidentally, the Danish til has a similar-sounding cousin in English, “till.” The Old Norse preposition til (“to”) is the ancestor of both the Danish til and the English prepositions “till” and “to.”

We’ve written on our blog about the English words “till” and “until” (you may be surprised to learn which came first).

Sorry that we can’t be more definite about why your Danish stepmother says “know to” instead of “know of,” but here’s a suggestion: ask her why she does it.

You might as well get it straight from the horse’s mouth. Or, as a Dane would put it, lige fra hestens mund.

Why a horse’s mouth? We had a brief posting back in 2006 that says there are two theories about the origin of the English expression, one involving horse racing and the other horse trading.

The most likely explanation is that it originated in the early 20th century in reference to inside information from a racing tipster that was supposedly as good as if it came straight from the horse itself.

We’ll end with an example from “The Reverent Wooing of Archibald,” a 1928 short story by one of our favorite writers, P. G. Wodehouse. The wooer (and eavesdropper) here is Archibald Mulliner:

“It might be an ignoble thing to eavesdrop, but it was apparent that Aurelia Cammarleigh was about to reveal her candid opinion of him: and the prospect of getting the true facts—straight, as it were, from the horse’s mouth—held him so fascinated that he could not move.”

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