The gn- combination seems to be mostly confined to the effects of friction and forceful grinding; most of the gn- words have some such meaning. The Indo-European root is *ghen- (to gnaw, grind), usually in a zero-grade form (*ghn-). It's fitting, too, because that's the kind of harsh, grinding sound that comes when the gn- is fully pronounced. We don't say the gn-, but we think it, and it even grinds in our mind. The gn- and kn- words, whether pronounced fully or partially, often have a flavor all their own and can add 'roughage' to creative speech and writing which is often made too smooth.

Each word has its own roots, and here they are, as best as I can find them.
* means 'hypothetical', meaning there are no examples of it, but the source is likely from there. OE/ME/ModE = Old/Middle/Modern English; ON/OIcel = Old Norse/Icelandic; Fris = Frisian, NoFris/Föhr/Sylt = North Frisian; EFris = East Frisian; OHG = Old High German, Du = Dutch; OF = Old French; Gk = Greek; L = Latin; IE = hypothetical Indo-European.

These are derivatives of the Greek gnosis (to know), cousins to our English word 'know' :

Also, these words :


And now, the kn- words. Some of these go back to basic Indo-European words starting in IE *gn- and *ghn- and reflected mostly in Germanic and Greek; in English, the k went to h and then became silent in most dialects. Some of these words may be distantly related to the gn- family, namely, the kn- words that have to do with compressing or lumping may have a tie to the words for chewing or grinding; the semantic line would be that the teeth chew by grinding, and grinding is a form of compression, and what is compressed in the mouth can be easily made into lumps.

I've encountered several words which don't really quite fit here. One is a Scottish term, kneister (to smother a laugh); one has to suspect a Norse preform along the lines of *fnaistr (akin to 'sneeze'). The same thing applies to kned (to pant, breathe heavily (of animals); exhausted), which may be from a *fneðr , or *fnedr .


There are a handful of Germanic-rooted words that were hn- at the time of Old English and Old Norse. I list them here because, like gn- and kn-, they started out with a kn- type sound, then the k/g/kh- reduced to a breath (hence hn- forms), then disappeared. In the case of hn-, it was lost even in the spelling by the Middle English period. In sound, the same path was taken by all three combinations, only at different times.

also, a former gn- word : nag (verb) : akin to ON gnaga (to gnaw)

Also, while the primary source of ModE nice is OF, from L nescius (ignorant), it was no doubt influenced in meaning by the OE hnesce (soft, gentle, refined, feminine) and hnesclíc (elegant, gentlemanly)

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