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Resurrecting a long-forgotten word
Jun 29, 2012


World-wide media are writing about Luka Magnotta and his victim, Jun Lin. 
Magnotta’s former neighbour was interviewed by the Sun, which then wrote: “MacKinnon says he was the only resident of the apartment building who regularly spoke with Magnotta, whom he described as quiet and well-kempt”  (June 5).
Have you ever used that term?  Have you heard anyone else use it?
Kempt is from the dialect word  kemb, past tense and past participle of the archaic kembam. From Old English and Old Teutonic, kemb/kembam referred only to the hair or wool of an animal when first used in English.
Chaucer used kember in the sense of “to comb.”
Few dictionaries bother to list kempt and you’ll never find well-kempt in their pages, either. Unkempt will probably be the sole kempt word there.
My most recent dictionary, the 2006 Collins-Gage, supplies only unkempt.
However, Nelson (1997) tells us kempt means “tidy; trim” — and that it’s a back-formation of unkempt. That is, unkempt came first. As unkempt’s first meaning, Nelson offers, “not combed.”
The Oxford Canadian (1998) also lists kempt, giving “combed” as the major definition. This dictionary defines unkempt as “untidy; of neglected appearance.”
Well-kempt appears in neither Nelson nor Oxford Canadian.
Going back a few years, we already find only unkempt in a Consolidated-Webster of 1960. But New Century (1927) supplies kemp (beard; whiskers; hair of an animal) and kempt (combed, as in hair), and also unkempt (not combed).
Well-kempt is now so unheard of that only the OED and Charles Earle Funk (2107 Curious Word Origins, Sayings and Expressions) even note the word’s existence.
In defining kempt as “combed,” Oxford notes that it is now found chiefly in combinations, “as well-kempt, etc.” Oxford adds that the original word, “is now displaced by comb.”
Funk says the only “modern survivors [of the verb kembam]  are as it appears in the combinations unkempt and well-kempt.”
Funk further states that in today’s popular usage of unkempt means, “ill-groomed; slovenly,” rather than “uncombed.” Well-kempt is now “well-groomed neat.” Funk explains, “In all other uses, kemb has been replaced by its descendant, comb.”
So, well-kempt, as found in the Sun, is correct usage even though it is archaic, and despite the fact that most of us have never heard it before.
When we call a word, “‘archaic,” we mean it is no longer current, that it is antiquated and old-fashioned.
It’s ironic that an archaism like well-kempt should show up in the pages of the Sun. This is the newspaper that glories in the use of modern language, colloquialism and slang, the journal that habitually uses “busted” and “cop” and “you guys.”
Here’s Sun columnist Tom Brodbeck sounding off on June 6: “Opposition parties in Ottawa and hug-a-thug groups ... insisted tougher sentences for violent repeat offenders would cause prisons to bust at the seams ...”
Well-kempt was not found in a direct quote, and it’s possible the interviewee, not the journalist, used it.
It still comes as a surprise.