Etymology and Knitting

In my first semester of graduate school at the University of Kentucky, I befriended a classmate who was laid back, fun, and effortlessly independent. Pretty much everything I struggled to be. One weekend, we set out to camp in the gorgeous woods of Kentucky. Gorgeous was exactly the word I used to describe the scenic drive alongside Red River Gorge to our spot. I remember this because it was then that my friend, a couple years my senior, gave me the more disturbing etymology of the word. Gorge was a noun that meant throat in French. The verb “se gorger” meaning to gorge on something or to overindulge, until you choke. She proceeded to tell me that the origin of this adjective historically carries the meaning that something is so desirable, or beautiful, that you could choke yourself on it. Well, then.

We were students of the French language, so these discussions were not uncommon. Etymology is a bit like a detective game, finding the thread that stretches from ancient to modern language to make sense and give meaning to our words. At the same time, though, tracing a word back to its original meaning is a way of simplifying or clarifying the layers of meaning that it carries. The journey from old to new can change and distort a word so that it becomes merely a distant cousin several times removed from its origin.

Initially, the camping trip was to include a group of us from our Modern Languages department. At the end, I was the only one who held to my commitment. We weren’t the best of friends and I was hoping that my (lack of) camping skills would be undetectable in a large group. Alas, it was just us. She had us prepared with the hot dogs, pre-made pancake mix for breakfast, sandwich makings, and activities around the area. After my first time spelunking and some hiking, we sat at our campsite and she pulled out her knitting. She said, “I thought I would teach you to knit, if you want to learn.” I laughed and with the happy astonishment of a child who just discovered her friend had the same sparkly shoes as her, I pulled out my knitting and said, “I already know how!”

We were in our early twenties in the early 2000s and finding a fellow knitter, much less in that age group (who spoke French and liked to camp too!) was even rarer. My mom had recently taught me the skill, but my friend had been knitting for a while. She told me about a children’s book she loved that was about knitting and how special the craft was to her. She cried as she talked about it, about how so much beauty could come of something as simple as repeating and varying a series of knots. The history, the etymology of the craft amazed her in its simple complexity. Similar to how a word like “gorgeous”, so often associated with beauty, simultaneously carried a more sinister implication. I had never thought of knitting in that way, but it made the craft even more special to me. In large part, because of our budding friendship.

Knitting, while a solitary activity, is also one of community. Unfortunately, after I left Kentucky to return to my Texas home, that sweet friendship I had briefly built did not stand up to the distance. Knitting allows me to create at unexpected times. Some projects require intense concentration, while others allow me to work in little spaces of time, like waiting to pick up my kids from school or at a doctor’s office. It invites conversations and curiosity from others who either do or do not knit. I have met women, men, and children from all sorts of backgrounds and ages who share in this craft.

My mom helping me with my knitting.

To knit is to join a series of knots to make a piece of work that functions and is beautiful. The craft works as a metaphor for the community of knitters, taking a group of tangled-up individuals with their own unique set of circumstances and making something beautiful and functional.

In our daily rush where convenience rules, where communication is reduced to acronyms, where efficiency and productivity drive our decisions, and hobbies become relegated to screens and effortless touches, it’s nice to have things like knitting that can still fit into the speedy life we all lead. Knitting sparks creativity, eases an anxious mind, and provides an opportunity for community and conversation.

What creative hobby do you enjoy?