Sunday, May 22, 2011

`A Little Machine; a Petty Contrivance; a Toy'

“Samuel Johnson is palmed off in classrooms as a harmless drudge of a lexicographer, yet open the Dictionary anywhere and find precision and eloquent plainness.”

The suggestion is from Guy Davenport’s “Louis Agassiz,” collected in The Geography of the Imagination, and I followed it. Bibliomancy, opening a book at random for purposes of divination, can be benignly amusing when not practiced in earnest. One’s reading life, after all, is ordered by systematic study, yes, but also by serendipity. “The necessity of amusement,” William Cowper writes in a letter, “makes me sometimes write verses; it made me a carpenter, a birdcage maker, a gardener; and has lately taught me to draw…” So it is with reading, a reliable source of amusement, among other things. I opened Johnson’s Dictionary blindly and pointed at the entry for “knack”:

“A little machine; a petty contrivance; a toy.”

For usage, Johnson cites a passage from Part II, Canto 3, of Samuel Butler’s Hudibras:

“First, He expounded both his Pockets,
And found a Watch, with Rings and Lockets,
Which had been left with him, t'erect
A Figure for, and so detect.
A Copper-Plate, with Almanacks
Engrav'd upon't, with other knacks…”

Knack, meaning “deception, trick, device,” entered English in the mid-fourteen century. The origin is uncertain, possibly the German knacken, “to crack.” The modern meaning of knack as a special gift or skill dates from Shakespeare’s youth. So too does knickknack, close to Butler’s sense of trifles, inconsequential objects, such as “Almanacks,” books of poetry, blog posts.

1 comment:

William A. Sigler said...

Things not practiced in earnest are only practice.