Some of us just have a knack for collecting knick-knacks | Michigan Radio
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Some of us just have a knack for collecting knick-knacks

Sep 16, 2018

If you have a box filled with items of the "what am I ever going to do with this" variety, we suggest the purchase of a knick-knack shelf.

A knick-knack shelf is the perfect place for a figurine of a flamingo wearing a shirt that says "Florida" or a collection of ceramic animals that came free with your tea bags. And how else does one properly display a  commemorative royal wedding plate?

They may not be good for much, but knick-knacks can be fun to collect. But how did they come to be known as "knick-knacks?"

"Knick-knack" is an example of reduplication. That's when all or part of a word is repeated with a slight change, like "zig zag," or "flip flop." In this case, “knack” is the root word.

In its earliest meanings, a "knack" was a trick that could sometimes be deceitful. This word later takes on a more positive meaning when it comes to refer to an ingenious method or skill, and that’s pretty much how we use it now: "He's got a knack for spotting valuable knick-knacks at garage sales."

By the 17th century, a knack could refer to a toy or trinket. This meaning is now obsolete, and that may be because of "knick-knack," which comes into the language right around the same time.

In its earliest life a "knick-knack" could be a trick or sleight, but it also comes to refer to a trinket or ornament.

When Anne Curzan was researching "knick-knack," she found the synonym "gimcrack." That got us thinking of other words for the fun little trinkets so many of us collect. Curzan remembers her family calling them "tchotchkes." What do you call them?

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