Lauren Sperber

what is kenspeckle?

Kenspeckle means conspicuous. It’s a much cooler word than conspicuous, so I’m not sure why it’s fallen out of popular usage. I would probably die of happiness if people started using it again. Anyway, I was first alerted to this fabulous word by AskOxford‘s word of the day e-mail list, which defined it suchly:

[KEN-spek-uhl] an adjective meaning ‘conspicuous or easily recognizable’. A Scottish word, it was first used in the 16th century and comes from Scandinavian: it is probably based on the Old Norse words kenna, meaning ‘to know or perceive’ and spak-, spek-, meaning ‘wise or wisdom’.

So, like the whore for funky words that I am and rabid searcher for blog titles that I was, I set about to make it my own. At first I was overcome with guilt at the notion of cribbing a name from a nifty, DIY company like Kenspeckle Cards, but after discovering Kenspeckle Letterpress, Kenspeckle Puppets, and a Scottish band named Kenspeckle, I left my morals behind.

My own little kenspeckle is going to be about whatever makes itself conspicuous in my little web-addicted, lit-obsessed, New York-centric world. Having not leapt fully formed and in a complete outfit of battle gear from my father’s head, mind you, I’m not positive how all this will pan out. [insert pithy, self-righteous remark about how this is a personal blog and I can write about whatever the heck I want to; also note I will not be represnting the opinions of anyone but my own self unless otherwise noted]

Kenspeckle is my very first web log (I’m late to the game, see). I made it with blosxom, which isn’t so much blogging software as a simple cgi script that pulls a bunch of html and text files together into the format of a blog. It’s incredibly simple and endlessly flexible. You can pretty much make it into whatever you want, depending upon how much you know. I’ve learned a ton in the production of this thing, but its interface is only as advanced as my own relatively stunted web design skills.

PS: If you’re one of those freaks people that’s really, super-duper crazed about etymology but you don’t have an Oxford English Dictionary or a subscription to the OED Online (in which case you don’t really deserve the title of a super-duper, really crazed etymology person, but whatever), read on (everyone else, please ignore the following—I can’t help myself). The full OED Online etymology reads:

Origin obscure: the form agrees with Norw. kjennespak, Sw. känspak, quick at recognizing persons or things (cf. ON. kennispeki faculty of recognition); but the change from the active to a passive sense makes difficulties. Some have suggested confusion with conspicuous, but evidence is wanting. Kenspecked is given by Skinner (1671) and Ray (1674), and in Craven and other Northern glossaries.

But that’s for “kenspeck” without the -le. The two words apparently have the same definition, but kenspeck came first, attributed to one Sir Thomas Cokaine (or Cokayne, OED Online will have you know) in his staggeringly popular swan song, A short treatise of hunting, which was either written or published in 1590 or 1591. The first use of kenspeckle proper is dated at 1714, in Susanna Centlivre‘s comedy The Wonder! a Woman keeps a Secret. So, in this play a Scottish footman named Gibby asks this character by the name of English Man (obviously the role that all Her Majesty’s Servants were vieing for) if he’s seen a woman go by. Understandably enough, English Man asks Gibby what kind of woman he’s looking for. Gibby responds, “Geud troth, she’s ne Kenspekle, she’s aw in a Clowd.” English Man, not caring much for Scottish footmen, cuts him off, saying, “Why it’s some High-land Monster which you brought over with you I suppose, I see no such not I, kenspekle quotha!”

I have no earthly idea what this exchange means, not really being able to follow Susanna’s rendering of a low-brow Scottish accent, but there you have it: the first instance of kenspeckle in the body of English literature. And if you clicked on Susanna’s name you learned about a rockin’ chick playwright that I, personally, had never heard of before my extensive research into the origins of kenspeckle.

If you read all that, you’re a complete maniac and should probably just subscribe to my blog right now.