vicious circle

While reading an article in the Chronicle early this morning (“The Campus Confederate Legacy We’re Not Talking About”, behind paywall) about the Kappa Alpha fraternity, I learned the name for the Ku Klux Klan may have originated from the Greek word κυκλος, — pronounced “KOO-klos” with the second vowel as in “soft” or “fox”. The word means “circle” and is etymologically related to English words like “cycle” and “cyclone”.

I have known Ancient Greek for nearly two decades, including teaching it at two colleges. I am out of practice, but κυκλος, is a word I have used when teaching my seminar Revolutions of Circularity. These days, knowledge of the language is largely confined to Classical and Biblical scholarship, although I did find it surprisingly handy a couple of years ago when navigating Modern Greek around Athens and the Peloponnese.

In contrast to the learned flair that surrounds Attic and Koine Greek, I have always associated the name Ku Klux Klan with the unlearned. I thought the misspelling of “clan” was unintentional and borne of illiteracy, or intentional as an appeal to the uneducated who join the organization. The truth is far worse. The replacement of “c” with “k” is a callback to the Greek letter κ (kappa) that appears twice in κυκλος.

This only goes to show that one may be schooled and yet unprincipled — or rather, perform hateful deeds even while principled.

Side note 1: I have always been a bit unsure how to read the replacement of “c” with “k” in the names of other institutions of the American South, such as Krystal, which apparently makes burgers similar to White Castle, and Krispy Kreme, which makes the most delicious mass-produced donuts. I just realized that Coca-Cola, based in Atlanta, uses the sound (but not the variant spelling) of the velar stop three times, just like Ku Klux Klan. But I want to be clear: as far as I know, these linguistic resemblances are absolutely not evidentiary of association with the KKK. Abstracted from any words, the K sound is appealing because it is funny; the letter K is striking because it is unusual.

Side note 2: This morning I also learned that the Proto-Indo-European root for “circle” (sker) is different from the PIE root for “cycle” (kwel) ! The closeness in sound, in both PIE and English, cannot be a coincidence. Sker is a homonym with another PIE word for “cut”, while kwel is homonymnal with a word meaning “sojourn”. Both words involve the reduplication that you hear in Greek and other languages such as Tagalog, so they allude to “cut and cut”, “sojourn and sojourn”. Still, it was a surprise to find out that “circle” and “cycle” stem from different roots.

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