German Word of the Week: The ‘Knapsack’ Mystery

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As I found out returning from a weekend in Luxembourg, Knapsack is a town in Germany. It’s also a common word for a backpack in English, as in the notorious “knapsack of white privilege“, or the “knapsack problem”. Yet Knapsack is not the word for backpack in German — the modern German word is Rucksack.

So many mysteries: Why is the English word for a kind of backpack, ‘Knapsack’, in reality a German word? When did it first enter English? Did Germans ever use it? If so, why did they abandon it? What is the significance of the fact that there is a town in Germany named Knapsack? Was the Knapsack invented there? Which came first, Knapsack the bag or Knapsack the town?

Anyone have any ideas?

3 thoughts on “German Word of the Week: The ‘Knapsack’ Mystery

  1. http://www.etymonline.com says it it may come from “knappen”, an old lower German word for “to eat”.

    I never heard “knappen”, but is close enough to “knabbern” (to nibble). When I was a child, long ago, my grandmother used the term “Knäppchen”, for the sliced ends of a rounded loaf of bred.

    And then, it reminds me of “knapp”, which means scarse, terse, narrow.

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    1. Oh, and then there is “Knappe”. Miners called themselves like this. Derived from Knabe, an outdated term for “Boy”.

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  2. See http://www.pc-webdienst.de/igk/
    – Knapsack isn’t a town proper, but a part of Hürth with 143 inhabitants
    – knapsack the bag is older than Knapsack the place (Die Wirklichkeit führt in die ersten bekannten schriftlichen Quellen des 17. Jahrhunderts, wo von einer Flurbezeichnung “uffm Knapsack” (auch “knapsacker velt”) die Rede ist. Die im Winkel zugeschnittenen Flächen, die einem “Knappsack” ähnelten, haben vermutlich zu dieser Bezeichnung geführt.)
    – Knappsack in German isn’t synonymous with Rucksack. It’s some weird medieval bag that fell out of use. (Der Kappsack ist nämlich eine doppelseitige, sackartige, leinene Tasche, die so über die Schulter getragen wird, daß ein Teil nach vorne, der andere nach hinten hängt, oder die an die Hamen (Halsjoch) des Pferdes befestigt wird”.)

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