Encyclopedia of Handkerchiefs

Backstory Biernes #10, Friday, July 10th 2015

(Published on July 11th, ’cause I fucked up.)

If you know me, then you’ll know that I love words. I don’t love them in the way prescriptive grammarians love them. I love them for what they are, not for their convenience or their so-called purity. I love them for what they are, not what I want them to be. Sometimes, I will just read histories of words for hours figuring out ways to exploit them for world domination. Or in my fiction. Usually the latter.

So it was, one random day this week, I had been thinking about the word “handkerchief” and thought it had a strange structure. At first, I thought it was French since I knew the word “chief” came from French. But I was hooked. Don’t ask why, just go with it.

The word comes from the 1520s from a combination of the words “hand” and “kerchief.” By this time, the word chief had already entered English as meaning “head,” as in that thing attached to your neck, and also as meaning “leader.” And so was “kerchief,” which came from “ker,” or “cover,” plus “chief,” which I already mentioned. So the original meaning of “kerchief” was “head cover.” But by the late 14th century, it came to mean basically “a personal piece of cloth with which to wipe my snotty bourgeois nose.”

I know, amazing stuff. Basically, the roots of the word “handkerchief” mean, “hand head cover,” which doesn’t sound right, does it? And why the fuck should you care? Well, I’ll leave that up to you, but I’ll give you one suggestion.

The meanings of a word’s roots don’t always give us an indication of its modern day usage. It may not even give us insight into the language. It shows us that words are tools, blunt objects not to be revered, but used. We use them however we can to achieve whatever objectives are in front of us. It sounds weird coming from someone who write fiction. But if a writer puts too much value on individual words, we may never write them at all. Words are flexible, just like language. They change over time, and once we realize this, we free ourselves from the lexical bondage that has been oppressing us since birth! What I mean to say, is that it can make us better writers. Don’t put words on pedestals. Yes, respect them, but don’t revere them. You feel me?


Some other stuff I thought about the word “handkerchief.”

Dropping the handkerchief as a flirtation. How the hell did this come about? That’s another story entirely, but it was basically a clandestine way of flirting in Europe in the olden days when pinching nipples in public was frowned upon. At first I thought that maybe this is where “hanky-panky” came from. But I was wrong. “Hanky-panky” originally meant trickery and maybe came from hoky-poky which originally meant deception or fraud and maybe came from “hocus pocus” (which apparently comes from a common alias used by magicians, “Hocas Pocas,” which is fake-Latin).

And then there’s the “Hokey Pokey,” the dance which apparently comes from the Scottish “Hinkumbooby” dance. Again–that’s another story entirely.

I love the history of words, no matter how boring they might seem. The way they change through time can give us glimpses into the social, extra-linguistic lives that come with literature.

But let’s face it. Handkerchiefs are just fancy fucking napkins.

And finally, there’s this guy: Nardwuar the Human Serviette. Look him up. Apparently napkins and serviettes are two different things in certain parts of our beloved Anglosphere.

P.S. “Hand” is a verb and a noun, but who really thinks about shit like that?!


Thanks for reading my blog about stuff that happened in the past, Backstory Biernes. Maybe you’ll be inspired by these words or feel like reading more of my playful delights such as, Gary Orbo – a short story.


Thanks again. Enjoy!