May 30, 2013

Case File #013.05.30: KEEN

Wanna hear somethin' really keen? Well, in the Old English era, the adjective keen was originally spelled cene and meant “brave” or “daring.” Then sometime during the eighth century, the spelling changed to kene and the meaning shifted to “skilled” or “adroit.” The senses of “sharp” (as in the edge of a blade) and “enthusiastic or eager” came into use circa 1200, which was also about the same time that the spelling changed to keen, but it wasn't until the mid-fourteenth century or so that the senses of “intense” and “mentally alert or intellectually shrewd” first appeared. Interestingly, the verb keen, meaning “to lament, mourn, or complain loudly,” and its associated noun (“a loud wailing or lament”) are etymologically unrelated to the adjective. Both verb and noun were actually derived from the Irish Gaelic verb caoin, meaning “to grieve” or “to weep in mourning,” and didn't appear in the English lexicon until around 1810. A little more than a hundred years later, American teenagers developed the informal usage in which keen means “wonderful” or “excellent,” but alas, most of today's hip teens aren't all that keen on the slangy word.

©2013 Michael R. Gates

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