The English language is weird
Wednesday January 08th 2020, 10:40 pm
Filed under: Spinning

Kemp: it’s the occasional short thick wiry stabby bits in wool. Merino has it mostly bred out of it. There’s a good description in Spinoff, ¬†where they mention that contrary to rumor those fibers do indeed take dye–but they take all the dye, hide the pretty colors away inside themselves and don’t let anyone see the changes.

Coming out of my lupus meeting today, someone admired my dress and asked if I’d made it.

“I could,” I answered, “but no, I got it directly from Ireland for Christmas on a really good sale.”

I really really like it. But it has just a very small amount of white kemp against the very very dark green that didn’t quite come out in the carding back at the mill. I wonder, if I snip a piece open will I find its missing green?

It got me thinking: the British often use a -t to end a word where we would use -ned. Burned your toast, burnt. So examining a fleece, you’d go from seeing a bit of kemp to describing that one as kempt, wouldn’t you? (No.) So how on earth did we get unkempt in the language to mean messy and not caring about appearances when one would think it could mean, say, carefully processed or taken care of to make something look and feel its best?

Unkemped. It should be a good thing, right?

So that got me looking. Dictionary.com is utterly ignorant of the fiber definition and calls kemp a warrior or a rogue, and that kempt is neat and tidy or combed hair.

Which I knew, but still, wait. Combed nicely means hair is kempt?

Someone way back in the day totally messed this up.


4 Comments so far
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That’s English for you, all right. Tricky language!

Comment by ccr in MA 01.09.20 @ 6:27 am

OMGosh…don’t get me started!!!

Comment by Jayleen Hatmaker 01.09.20 @ 7:29 am

This is very interesting.

Thank you for sharing your discovery!

Comment by Suzanne in Montreal 01.09.20 @ 11:36 am

My initial thought: Could it be that “to kemp” was the process of *removing* kemp? So that “unkempt” would refer to the wool that hadn’t had that process done yet, and “kempt” would refer to the wool that HAD been cleaned up?

On further research: The etymologies I’m seeing for “unkempt” refer back to a Proto-Indo-European word meaning “to comb”, which itself came from a root word meaning “tooth” or “nail”. So unkempt was uncombed…

There’s also an etymology for “kemp” that goes back to a Proto-Germanic word meaning moustache or beard, and by extension, coarse hairs, which goes back to a PIE word for jaw. (I do see the other etymology, where “kemp” has to do with fighting but that seems to be a very separate sense of the word, where “to kemp” is a verb. That version of the word is cognate with our word “campaign”.)

In other words, “kemp” and “unkempt” look remarkably similar and have related meanings, and yet it looks like they aren’t actually cognate (they don’t share the same roots). I wonder if they actually sort of back-formed over time to become more similar to each other?

(Not sure your blog will allow me to post links, but check wiktionary.org if you want to go down that rabbit-hole further!)

(BTW, hi! Linguistics classes do occasionally come in useful, I guess!)

Comment by Anne Blayney 01.10.20 @ 10:58 am



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