“I have never been giddy, dear Stella, since that morning: I have taken a whole box of pills, and kecked at them every night, and drank a pint of brandy at mornings.”
I tripped over “kecked.” You’ll find the sentence in The Journal to Stella (1766), dated Dec. 9, 1710. It’s a word I hear daily at work, though not in Swift’s sense. Keck Hall stands next to the building where my office is located on the Rice University campus, and is home to the Department of Chemical and Biomolecular Engineering. It was built in 1925 as the Chemistry Building, renamed Dell Butcher Hall, and in 2000 renamed a second time after Howard B. Keck, the philanthropist and former chairman of the Superior Oil Company.
But what did Swift mean by keck in his letter to Esther Johnson, known to him as Stella? Under etymology, the OED offers a single word: “echoic.” In other words, it takes its sound from what it means, which is this: “to make a sound as if about to vomit; to retch; to feel an inclination to vomit; hence to keck at, to reject (food, medicine, etc.) with loathing.” This is a word I wish I’d known as a kid. From now on I’ll use it when the cat coughs up hairballs.
Despite its meaning, the word has a rather distinguished pedigree. The OED’s first citation, dated 1601, is from Philemon Holland’s translation of Pliny the Elder’s Historie of the World: “Their pouder [sic] is ordained for them who are ready to keck and heaue at euery little thing.” Next, Milton used it in “An Apology for Smectymnuus” (1642): “The worser stuffe she strongly keeps in her stomach, but the better she is ever kecking at, and is queasie.” One admires the forthrightness of writers in the seventeen century who use words that make twenty-first-century readers and writers “queasie.” The next citation is from an essay I hate by a writer I love, Charles Lamb’s “Imperfect Sympathies”: “If they can sit with us at table, why do they keck at our cookery?” Lamb is a gentle soul, sometimes childlike, almost a saint in the way he cared for his mentally ill sister. But in this essay he reveals himself as an anti-Semite. He claims “in the abstract, no disrespect for the Jews. But I should not care to be in the habits of familiar intercourse with any of that nation.” Lamb turns almost rabid:
“A Hebrew is nowhere congenial to me. He is least distasteful on change—for the mercantile spirit levels all distinctions, as are all beauties in the dark. I boldly confess I do not relish the approximation of Jew and Christian, which has become so fashionable. The reciprocal endearments have, to me, something hypocritical and unnatural in them. I do not like to see the Church and Synagogue kissing and congeeing in awkward postures of an affected civility. If they are converted, why do they not come over to us altogether? Why keep up a form of separation, when the life of it has fled? If they can sit with us at table, why do they keck at our cookery?”
My first reaction, ridiculous on the face of it, was this: At least George Eliot came along and wrote Daniel Deronda, as though one English writer’s act of imaginative sympathy redeemed the abhorrent stupidity of another. But anti-Semitism is always confounding, and always with us, recently in the form of BDS (Boycott, Divestment, Sanctions), the same old Jew-hatred in the guise of anti-Israeli sentiment. Not even otherwise seemingly decent human beings are immune to its virulence. On this occasion, Lamb makes me keck.