Word of the day: kankedort

October 21, 2010

These past weeks my bedtime reading has been Chaucer’s Troilus and Criseyde. It has been slow going, I don’t mind saying, chiefly on account of the fact that I am already half asleep when I pick it up, but also of course on account of the difficulties that Middle English poses for modern readers. Anyway, the other night I was plodding along, nearing the end of Book II, when I came upon a terrific word: kankedort. It comes at the very end of the Book, in a passage that finds Criseyde’s uncle, Pandarus, tricking her into meeting with Troilus, who lies abed, sick with love. Here is the passage, with a bit of context leading in:

Al innocent of Pandarus entente,
Quod tho Criseyde, `Go we, uncle dere';
And arm in arm inward with him she wente,
Avysed wel hir wordes and hir chere;
And Pandarus, in ernestful manere,Seyde,
`Alle folk, for goddes love, I preye,
Stinteth right here, and softely yow pleye.

`Aviseth yow what folk ben here withinne,
And in what plyt oon is, God him amende!
And inward thus ful softely biginne;
Nece, I conjure and heighly yow defende,
On his half, which that sowle us alle sende,
And in the vertue of corounes tweyne,
Slee nought this man, that hath for yow this peyne!

`Fy on the devel! Thenk which oon he is,
And in what plyt he lyth; com of anoon;
Thenk al swich taried tyd, but lost it nis!
That wol ye bothe seyn, whan ye ben oon.
Secoundelich, ther yet devyneth noon
Up-on yow two; come of now, if ye conne;
Whyl folk is blent, lo, al the tyme is wonne!

`In titering, and pursuite, and delayes,
The folk devyne at wagginge of a stree;
And though ye wolde han after merye dayes,
Than dar ye nought, and why? For she, and she
Spak swich a word; thus loked he, and he;
Lest tyme I loste, I dar not with yow dele;
Com of therfore, and bringeth him to hele.’

But now to yow, ye lovers that ben here,
Was Troilus nought in a kankedort,
That lay, and mighte whispringe of hem here,
And thoughte, `O lord, right now renneth my sort
Fully to dye, or han anoon comfort';
And was the firste tyme he shulde hir preye
Of love; O mighty God, what shal he seye?

What shal he seye, indeed? The good folks at the Oxford English Dictionary define the word as “A state of suspense; a critical position; an awkward affair.”  This passage from Chaucer is the only example that they cite, and the etymology is simply listed as “unascertained”. In other words, we are dealing here with that rare beast: a literary singularity.

My friends, it is not right that so solid and loveable a word as this should languish any longer in obscurity. Let us all endeavour to introduce it into our conversation as opportunity allows.

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9 Responses to “Word of the day: kankedort”

  1. Christina A. Says:

    I too will lie in kankedort for the day that I hear you use this in common conversation!

    Oh there are so many uses!

    • Robert Freedman Says:

      As a persistent and sensitive young man in the 1950s, I was the ardent suitor of an equally senstive young woman who lay in kankedort until I accepted the kankedortness of the situaton and joined the military. Now 74, I look for kankedort in the terrible certainty of a condominium setting.

  2. cburrell Says:

    Good find, Janet. I wonder what he is going to say?

    Can anyone loan me $24?

  3. cburrell Says:

    A kind-hearted soul with a JSTOR account sent me a copy of the full text of the article to which Janet linked. The basic argument there is that kankedort = cankered + ort, where cankered = ‘crab-like’ (from the Latin cancer, for ‘crab’) and ort = ‘place, country, region, quarter’ (from the Middle Danish oort). In astrology, the crab (under the sign of Cancer) is associated with hesitation or uncertainty, and thus, on this theory, kankedort means something like ‘place where uncertainty prevails’.

    This argument was set forth in 1949, and the OED still has not altered their original etymology (“unascertained”). I conclude, therefore, that they were not convinced. But the argument is an interesting one.

  4. sarah Says:

    Great word–in Classical studies we call those ‘singularities’ hapax legomena (sing. hapax legomenon), words that appear once in an author’s corpus or an entire language.

  5. Anonymous Says:

    The word comes up as well in Ammon Shea’s book on the OED, and is singled out in Nicholson Baker’s review of it:http://www.nytimes.com/2008/08/03/books/review/Baker-t.html?_r=0

  6. Wordhound Says:

    H/T to sarah, who makes it possible to point out that kankedort is a hapax legomenon. And there’s a sentence that doesn’t get an outing very often.


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