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Literary Terms and Definitions: K

This page is under perpetual construction! It was last updated April 24, 2018.

This list is meant to assist, not intimidate. Use it as a touchstone for important concepts and vocabulary that we will cover during the term. Vocabulary terms are listed alphabetically.

[A] [B] [C] [D] [E] [F] [G] [H] [I] [J] [K] [L] [M]

[N] [O] [P] [Q] [R] [S] [T] [U] [V] [W] [X] [Y] [Z]

KAIDAN: Traditional Japanese ghost stories, especially folktales from the Edo period.

KANJI: A set of Japanese ideographs. The Japanese derived them from the older Chinese ideographs.

KATABASIS: The Greek term for the descent into the underworld.

KATHARSIS: An alternative spelling of catharsis (see above).

KECHUMARAN: A family of non-Indo-European languages spoken in the Andes of South America.

KENNING: A form of compounding in Old English, Old Norse, and Germanic poetry. In this poetic device, the poet creates a new compound word or phrase to describe an object or activity. Specifically, this compound uses mixed imagery (catachresis) to describe the properties of the object in indirect, imaginative, or enigmatic ways. The resulting word is somewhat like a riddle since the reader must stop and think for a minute to determine what the object is. Kennings may involve conjoining two types of dissimilar imagery, extended metaphors, or mixed metaphors. Kennings were particularly common in Old English literature and Viking poetry. The most famous example is hron-rade or hwal-rade ("whale-road") as a poetic reference to the sea. Other examples include Thor-Weapon as a reference to a smith's hammer, battle-flame as a reference to the way light shines on swords, gore-cradle for a battlefield filled with motionless bodies, and word-hoard for a person's eloquence. In Njal's Saga we find Old Norse kennings like shield-tester for warrior, or prayer-smithy for a man's heart, or head-anvil for the skull. In Beowulf, we also find Anglo-Saxon banhus ("bone-house") for body, goldwine gumena ("gold-friend of warriors") for a generous prince, beadoleoma ("flashing light") for sword, and beaga-gifa ("ring-giver") for a lord.

Kennings are less common in Modern English than in earlier centuries, but some common modern examples include "beer-goggles" (to describe the way one's judgment of appearances becomes hazy while intoxicated) and "surfing the web" (which mixes the imagery of skillful motion through large amounts of liquid, amorphous material with the imagery of an interconnected net linked by strands or cables), "rug-rats" (to describe children), "tramp-stamps" (to describe trashy tattoos), or "bible-thumpers" (to describe loud preachers or intolerant Christians). See also compounding and neologism.

KENTISH: The Old English dialect spoken in Kent.

KHOISAN: A family of non-Indo-European languages spoken in the southwestern regions of Africa.

KIGO: A traditional "season-word" in Japanese haiku. The kigo must appear within a haiku's text or be strongly implied by imagery. These words place the haiku within a specific month or season, establishing an atmosphere for the poem while maintaining brevity. Japanese books of poetry are usually divided according to season, with the five Japanese seasons being Spring, Summer, Fall, Winter, and New Year's added as the fifth season to Europe's traditional four. The kigo can be an actual reference to the name of the season or a month, or it can be a traditional connotative word: cicadas, fireflies, flies, frogs, and mosquitoes are common kigo for summer haiku, as are billowing clouds, summer storms, burning sunshine, fans, midday naps, parasols, and planters' songs. Fall kigo include references to the moon, falling leaves, scarecrows, the call of crickets, chrysanthemums, and allusions to the cold weather, lengthening nights, graveside visits, charcoal kilns, medicinal roots, gourds, persimmons, apples, and vines. Winter kigo include imagery of snow, bowl-beating rituals or begging, allusions to failing strength, charcoal fires, banked fires, socks drying, the old calendar, mochi (festive rice-cakes) and mochi sellers. Spring kigo include cherry blossoms, and so on. The following haiku by Bashó illustrates the kigo:

Kare eda ni
Karasu no tomari keri
Aki no kure
[On a leafless bough
A crow is perched--
The autumn dusk.]

See haiku for further discussion.

KILTARTANESE: Lady Augusta Gregory's term for English with Gaelic syntax--i.e., the dialect of English spoken in Kiltartan, a townland close to her home at Coole Park. Lady Gregory chose to use this dialect and its distinctive Gaelic features for her translations of Old Irish tales in Gods and Fighting Men.

KINESICS: In linguistics, the analysis of how body movements can communicate meaning.

KLEOS (Greek, "What others hear about you"): Renown, honor, glory, and fair reputation achieved through great deeds--especially battle but to a lesser extent in Olympic games, poetry contests, and literature. The Greeks thought of kleos as something transferred from a father to a son, and the son would inherit the duty for carrying on and building upon the "glory" of the father. In Greek literature, kleos becomes a predominant concern of epic heroes like Achilles, who must choose between achieving kleos but dying in battle, or having a long and happy life but having his name fade after a few generations. See also fame/shame culture.

KNIGHT: A military aristocrat in medieval Europe and England who swore service as a vassal to a liege lord in exchange for control over land. The term comes from the Old English word cniht, meaning young man or servant-boy. The process of becoming a knight was a long one, and small boys would begin their training as a page at court, serving food or drink to their elders, running messages and errands. They would be expected during this period to learn the niceties of polite society and respect for their elders. The next phase of training was serving as squire to another knight. The squire would be expected to polish and clean his knight's armor and weapons, care for and feed the horses, and wait upon his master during jousts or military service. He would also learn the finer points of fighting and riding. The final stage of knighthood was a semi-religious ceremony that varied in its details from one geographic area to another. In the late medieval period, the position of knight often became hereditary, and the title Sir, Ser, or Don was indicative of this rank. Associated with knighthood in the later Middle Ages were cultural phenomena such as feudalism, the cult of chivalry and courtly love.

KOINE (Grk, "Common"): (1) Common or lower-class Greek as it was spoken throughout the Mediterranean regions during the Hellenistic period up through the last days of the Roman Empire. The Greek New Testament, for instance, was written in Koine Greek as opposed to the literary language of Classical Greek. (2) Figuratively, any widely distributed variety of a language--i.e., a lingua franca.

KOLBÍTAR (Old Norse, "coal-biter"): The term has two pertinent meanings for literature students as follows:

(1) a kenning in Old Norse literature to describe men who huddle close enough to kitchen fires that they could bite the coals--i.e., lazy sit-abouts who neglect manly tasks; such stock characters appear frequently in Old Norse narratives, and they often end up dynamic characters who transform into heroes after inauspicious beginnings (see Andrew Lazo's discussion in Drout 324).

(2) a club of scholars at Oxford founded by J.R.R. Tolkien who met several times a semester to work their way through translating and reading aloud Old Norse works like the Eddas and sagas, which overlapped to some degre with the Viking Club for undergraduates (founded by Tolkien and E.V. Goron), and later rolled into the Inklings (Drout 324).

KOTHORNI: See buskins.

KOTTABOS: A rowdy Greek drinking game. After draining the wine in a kylix, the drinker would stick a finger through one of the handles and rapidly spin the kylix around. He would then suddenly stop its motion, and the dregs of the wine would shoot forth from the bottom of the kylix. We aren't exactly sure what the rules were for the game, but apparently the competitors tried to aim the dregs so they would land in a large flattish bowl or else hit a specific target in the room. Amongst the competitors who successfully hit the target, the one with the best spatter of rays in the splash pattern would be declared the winner, with six-pointed stars being worth more than five-pointed stars, and so on, (i.e., the messier the impact, the more points it was worth). We can imagine the contest was a fairly wet one, and that often the ceiling, the walls, and furniture (or even other competitors) would end up spattered with the lees. In late-night dinners as depicted in Plato's Symposium, kottabos would have been one of the primary entertainments.

KUZNITSA: The "Smithy Poets" of Russia. More information TBA:

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[N] [O] [P] [Q] [R] [S] [T] [U] [V] [W] [X] [Y] [Z]

I consulted the following works while preparing this list. I have tried to give credit to specific sources when feasible, but in many cases multiple reference works use the same examples or provide the same dates for common information. Students should examine these resources for more information than these humble webpages provide:

Works Cited:

  • Abrams, M. H. A Glossary of Literary Terms. 6th edition. Fort Worth: Harcourt Brace College Pub., 1993. [Now superseded by later editions.]
  • ---. "Poetic Forms and Literary Terminology." The Norton Anthology of English Literature. 7th edition. Volume 1. New York: Norton, 2000. 2944-61. 2 Vols.
  • Algeo, John and Thomas Pyles. The Origin and Development of the English Language. 5th edition. U.S.A., 2004.
  • Anderson, Douglas. "Note on the Text" in J.R.R. Tolkien, The Lord of the Rings. 50th anniversary edition. Houghton Mifflin, 2004.
  • Baugh, A. C. and Thomas Cable. A History of the English Language. 6th edition. Boston: Pearson Publishing, 2013.
  • Brown, Michelle P. Understanding Illuminated Manuscripts: A Guide to Technical Terms. London: The British Library and the J. Paul Getty Museum, 1994.
  • Burkert, Walter. Greek Religion. [Originally published 1977 as Griechische Religion der archaischen und klassischen Epoche.] Trans. John Raffan. Cambridge: Harvard UP, 1985.
  • Carrick, Jake. E-mail interview. 28 April 2016.
  • Catholic University of America Editorial Staff. The New Catholic Encyclopedia. New York: McGraw-Hill. 1967-79.
  • Corbett, Edward P. J. Classical Rhetoric for the Modern Student. 3rd edition. Oxford: Oxford UP, 1990.
  • Crow, Martin and Virginia E. Leland. "A Chronology of Chaucer's Life and Times." As condensed and reproduced in Larry Benson's The Canterbury Tales, Complete. Boston: Houghton Mifflin Company, 2000. xxiii-xxv.
  • Cuddon, J. A. The Penguin Dictionary of Literary Terms and Literary Theory. London: Penguin Books, 1991.
  • Damrosch, David, gen. ed. The Longman Anthology of British Literature. 2nd Compact Edition. Volume A. New York: Pearson, 2004. 3 Vols.
  • Deutsch, Babette. Poetry Handbook: A Dictionary of Terms. Fourth Edition. New York: Harper and Row, 1974. Reprint as Barnes and Noble Edition, 1981.
  • Drout, Michael D. C. J.R.R. Tolkien Encyclopedia: Scholarship and Critical Assessment. New York: Routledge, 2007.
  • Duffy, Seán. Medieval Ireland: An Encyclopedia. New York: Routledge, 2005.
  • Eagleton, Terry. Literary Theory: An Introduction. Minneapolis: U of Minnesota P, 1983.
  • Elkhadem, Saad. The York Dictionary Literary Terms and Their Origin: English, French, German, Spanish. York P, 1976.
  • Feeney, Denis. "Introduction." Ovid: Metamorphóses Trans. David Raeburn. London: Penguin Books, 2004.
  • Gabel, John B. and Charles B. Wheeler. The Bible as Literature: An Introduction. New York: Oxford U P, 1986.
  • Giroux, Joan. The Haiku Form. New York: Charles E. Tuttle Company, 1974. Reprinted New York: Barnes and Noble, 1999.
  • Greenblatt, Stephen. "Glossary." The Norton Shakespeare: Tragedies. New York: Norton, 1997. 1139-43.
  • Guerin, Wilfred L., et al. "Glossary." A Handbook of Critical Approaches to Literature. 2nd ed. New York: Harper and Row, 1979. 317-29.
  • Harkins, Williams E. Dictionary of Russian Literature. The New Students Outline Series. Patterson, New Jersey: Littlefield, Adams, and Co., 1959.
  • Harvey, Sir Paul and Dorothy Eagle, eds. The Oxford Companion to English Literature. 4th ed. Oxford: Oxford UP, 1969.
  • Holman, C. Hugh. A Handbook to Literature. 3rd edition. New York: The Odyssey Press, 1972.
  • Hopper, Vincent Foster. Medieval Number Symbolism: Its Sources, Meaning, and Influence on Thought and Expression. 1938. Republished Mineola, NY: Dover Publications, 2000.
  • Horobin, Simon. Chaucer's Language. New York: Palgrave McMillan, 2007.
  • Kane, George. The Autobiographical Fallacy in Chaucer and Langland Studies. London: H. K. Lewis, 1965.
  • Lacy, Norris J. The New Arthurian Encyclopedia. New York: Garland Publishing, 1996.
  • Lanham, Richard A. A Handlist of Rhetorical Terms. 2nd edition. Berkeley: U of California P, 1991.
  • Marshall, Jeremy and Fred McDonald. Questions of English. Oxford: Oxford UP, 1995.
  • Mawson, C. O. Sylvester and Charles Berlitz. Dictionary of Foreign Terms. New York: Thomas Y. Crowell Company, 2nd ed. 1975.
  • McManus, Damian. Ogam Stones At University College Cork. Cork: Cork U P, 2004.
  • Metzger, Bruce M. and Michael D. Coogan, eds. The Oxford Companion to the Bible. New York: Oxford U P, 1993.
  • O'Donoghue, Heather. Old Norse-Icelandic Literature: A Short Introduction. Malden, MA:Blackwell Publishing, 2004.
  • Page, P.K. "Forward." Hologram. Brick Books, London, Ontario: 1994.
  • Palmer, Donald. Looking At Philosophy: The Unbearable Heaviness of Philosophy Made Lighter. 2nd edition. Mountain View, California: Mayfield Publishing Company, 1994.
  • Peck, Harry Thurston. Harper's Dictionary of Clasical Literature and Antiquities. New York: The American Book Company, 1923. 2 vols.
  • Preminger, Alex, and T.V.F. Brogan, et al. The New Princeton Encyclopedia of Poetry and Poetics. New York: MJF Books for Princeton University Press, 1993.
  • Perelman, Ch. and L. Olbrechts-Tyteca. The New Rhetoric: A Treatise on Argumentation. Notre Dame, U of Notre Dame P, 2000.
  • Pound, Ezra. ABC of Reading. New York: Laughlin, 1960..
  • The Oxford English Dictionary. 2nd ed. 1989.
  • Quinn, Arthur. Figures of Speech: 60 Ways to Turn a Phrase. Davis, California: Hermagoras P, 1993.
  • Rae, Gail. Guide to Literary Terms. Staten Island, New York: Research and Educational Association, 1998.
  • Roberts, Edgar V. and Henry E. Jacobs. "Glossary of Literary Terms." Literature: An Introduction to Reading and Writing. 6th edition. Upper Saddle River, NJ: Prentice Hall, 2001. 2028-50.
  • Scott, Kathleen L. Later Gothic Manuscripts, 1390-1490. A Survey of Manuscripts Illuminated in the British Isles 6. London: Harvey Miller Publishers, 1996. 2 Vols.
  • Shaw, Harry. Concise Dictionary of Literary Terms. New York: McGraw-Hill, 1976.
  • Shipley, Joseph T. Dictionary of World Literature: Criticism, Forms, Technique. The Philosophical Library. New York: Philosophical Library, 1943.
  • Smith, Richard Upsher, Jr. A Glossary of Terms in Grammar, Rhetoric, and Prosody for Readers of Greek and Latin. Mundelein, Illinois: Bolchazy-Caducci Publishers, Inc., 2011.
  • Supplement to the Oxford English Dictionary. 1989.
  • Smith, David P. "Glossary of Grammar Terms." [Miscellaneous handouts made available to students in Basic Greek at Carson-Newman University in the Fall Term of 2006.]
  • Swain, Dwight V. Creating Characters. The Elements of Fiction Writing. Cincinnati: Writer's Digest Books, 1990.
  • Velásquez, Lito. E-mail communication. 26 October 2015.
  • Williams, Jerri. "Schemes and Tropes." [Miscellaneous handouts made available to her graduate students at West Texas A & M University in the Fall Term of 1993.]
  • Yasuda, Kenneth. The Japanese Haiku: Its Essential Nature, History, and Possibilities in English. Rutland, Vermont and Tokyo, Japan: Charles E. Tuttle Co., 1957.
  • Zenkovsky, Serge A. Medieval Russia's Epics, Chronicles, and Tales. Rev Ed. New York: Meridian Books, 1974.
  • Zireaux, Paul. E-mail Interview. 21 June 2012.



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