Printable Version
Pronunciation: jen-y-flek-shn Hear it!

Part of Speech: Noun, mass (no plural)

Meaning: 1. Bending one or both knees as a sign of respect, as when leaving a church. 2. Kow-towing, behaving in a servile manner, groveling.

Notes: Today's noun is derived from the verb to genuflect, the head of a substantial family of words. It has an adjective, genuflectory, and someone who genuflects is a genuflector. Bowing on both knees is known as a double genuflection and expresses twice the respect as a single bent knee. The British spelling of today's word is genuflexion, in keeping with its spelling of inflexion, reflexion, etc.

In Play: We English speakers have been quite modest in our bowing. The Chinese expression kòu tóu "knock the head", whence English kow-tow, indicates that the Chinese clearly took bowing much more seriously than our ancestors. But as long as sycophants are around, we will find metaphorical uses for today's word: "Rathbone's genuflection before the president in the boardroom gets on everyone's nerves." Keep in mind, however, in some churches genuflection before God, especially while praying, remains a sign of respect, as it has been for millennia.

Word History: Today's word comes from Late Latin genuflectere "to bow" based on genu "knee" + flectere "to bend". The latter stem is related to our word flexible, borrowed from Latin. The origin of genu is a Proto-Indo-European word meaning "joint" that had three forms: genu-, gonu- and gnu-. While we do not know the functions of these forms in PIE, they do appear consistently across all Indo-European languages. Latin obviously used the first. Greek chose the second for its gonia "angle, corner", found in words borrowed from Greek, like diagonal and orthogonal. Russian and English chose the third form for Russian gnu "I bend" and Old English as cneo "knee". Today cneo is spelled, of course, knee, with an initial silent K, which came to be pronounced H and was then lost over the course of the history of English. The K is preserved in German Knie "knee" and Swedish knä "knee". (Today we sincerely genuflect to the mother of David Fleischhacker, who came across today's Good Word and passed it on to David, who shared it with us.)

Dr. Goodword,

P.S. - Register for the Daily Good Word E-Mail! - You can get our daily Good Word sent directly to you via e-mail in either HTML or Text format. Go to our Registration Page to sign up today!