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Thursday, September 8, 2016

Meekly kneeling upon your knees

Image result for kneeling
OK, so I had a LOT of sins to confess. Didn't realize it would take THIS long

I always tend to smile inwardly when I hear the following adjuration in church: "Make your humble confession to Almighty God, meekly kneeling upon your knees."

"What the hell, oops I mean heck (I am in church after all) else could you kneel on?" think I irreverently.

Kneeling made headlines recently when, as a sign of protest against social injustice, football players Colin Kaepernick and Eric Reid of the San Francisco 49ers dropped to their knees rather than standing during the pre-game singing of the American national anthem

But what would you say? "They kneeled"? or "They knelt"? 

I would only say "knelt", and I assumed that this irregular past tense was something we had inherited from Anglo-Saxon, like a lot of our irregular tenses. Indeed my kneejerk (emphasis on the jerk) reaction on seeing "kneeled" was that it was some recent upstart and probably INCORRECT.

Brace yourself, o reader. I was WRONG. (I hate when I have to say that). 

"Knelt" did not in fact crop up until the 17th century, before which time "kneeled" was the past tense. It followed in the footsteps of "feel", the past tense of which gradually shifted (or should I say "creeped"?) from "feeled" to "felt" between the Norman Conquest and Shakespeare's time. But the fact that "knelt" was later to the party than "felt" meant that "kneeled" came over to North America, where it has survived, whereas "feeled" died out of all varieties of English. 

Subsequently, "knelt" also migrated to North America, where it is now considerably more common than "kneeled".

Over time, some verbs that started out as irregular have become regular (see, for example, this post about "reach") and the reverse has also happened, as we have seen with "kneel". We grow to accept whatever catches on. Some people rant about "dove" rather than "dived" as a past tense of "dive" (see this post) and "snuck" rather than "sneaked" as a past tense of "sneak", but they are just further examples of this time-honoured tradition.

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  1. Thanks for taking us through the maze once again, Katherine. I have a non-grammar observation about the recent US anthem protest. A football player doesn't "kneel" or even drop to his knees (unless he does). He "takes a knee." This is a meaningful gesture, usually from the quarterback, one that all football players understand as clearly as churchgoers understand their kneeling. As does anyone who watched Friday Night Lights, where taking a knee was also a signal for players to pay attention in a serious way.

    1. Thanks for clarifying this, Virginia. I didn't make the connection.
      Katherine, thanks for your reminder about the changing nature of our language. I confess that I am now often lost between the English rules I grew up with and the more modern adaptations (though I do dislike "snuck", and also "impacted" in place of "affected". By the way, we asked our priest to remove the "meekly kneeling upon your knees" because in the traditional service that we attend, many of the people are unable to kneel. Actually, we hadn't used that phrase for some time, but she was new and had reverted to it. She kindly considered it, agreed and that was that! So -- I suppose -- religious wording, like our language, adapts.

  2. "Knelt," for somewhat similar reasons.It sounded like the older form to me.

    "...kneeling upon your knees"

    "'Moses ... take off your shoes from off your feet' said God in his redundant way."

    - from a David Steinberg sermonette


About Me

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Canada's Word Lady, Katherine Barber is an expert on the English language and a frequent guest on radio and television. She was Editor-in-Chief of the Canadian Oxford Dictionary. Her witty and informative talks on the stories behind our words are very popular. Contact her at wordlady.barber@gmail.com to book her for speaking engagements; she can tailor her talks to almost any subject. She is also available as an expert witness for lawsuits.