Category: Language Adventures

December 21, 2023

Ken: one’s mental perception, one’s knowledge, or one’s understanding

The definition of the word ‘ken’ has evolved. It once referred to the distance the eye could see when at sea. If you could see a shoreline, the ship’s captain may say, ‘Land is within our ken.’ Shakespeare is noted for using it similarly – “Tis double death to drown in ken of shore.”

Although Shakespeare is also noted for creating many words, with an estimated 1700 hundred still in use today, it does not appear that ‘ken’ is one of them. Many of the words attributed to Shakespeare may have been spoken before his time, but he was the first to write them. This, however, is not the case with “ken.”

The word ‘ken’ has been used since as early as the year 900, and it didn’t mean range of vision. Instead, it was defined the same way we use the word today. It is one’s mental perception, one’s knowledge, or one’s understanding.

It is fascinating to contemplate the further possible evolution of the word. I can easily see how ‘ken’ could morph to include one’s capabilities, such as “Playing Rachmaninoff is beyond Becky’s musical ken” or “It was a total surprise that his ken included making that hole in one.” But please remember that neither of these sample sentences accurately depicts the current definition of the word. So please don’t use it this way.

Furthermore, knowing if this logical expansion of ken’s definition will happen at all is honestly beyond my ken. (That is the correct use of the word.)

Here are a couple of additional fun sentences:

“I tried to explain the concept of ‘ken’ to my friend, but it seems like it’s beyond his ken.

As the detective examined the crime scene, he muttered, ‘This mystery is beyond the ken of an ordinary investigator – someone must have a PhD in mischief!’

If you tried, I bet you could find many instances when you can appropriately use the word ‘ken’ this week. Give it a try, and post your sentence on my LinkedIn Language Adventures post for ken.

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