The word I was taught for "knife" is "Messer".

But someone, who appears to be a native speaker, answered a question to the effect that "Kniff" looked like its English counterpart "knife".

Certain other Germanic languages, such as Swedish, use "kniv".

So, was "Kniff" ever an older German word for "knife", at least in some dialects, that is no longer in common use?

  • 9
    I know Kniff as pinch and I did never associated it with knife before your post
    – Emanuel
    Apr 30, 2012 at 22:09
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    @Emanuel: I double-checked, and the person listed "Kniff" under words that "have diverged over time." So maybe it's wrong to say it's "knife." But in that case, he didn't answer the question, and confused me. He also associates knight with Knecht, which I believe to be "servant," not knight.
    – Tom Au
    Apr 30, 2012 at 22:18
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    @TomAu: You are right about Knecht. A "knight" would be "Ritter" in German.
    – 0x6d64
    May 1, 2012 at 8:02
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    @TomAu: But the point is that knight and Knecht originate from the same word in some old form of German.
    – Tara B
    May 1, 2012 at 8:41
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    @Tara: +1, that's the point. Tom: It was the English knight that used to be a lot closer to today's meaning of Knecht, see etymonline and wikipedia. May 1, 2012 at 9:32

4 Answers 4


Indeed both words "knife" and "Kniff" sound very similar but their meaning is entirely different. For German we have this etymology:

  • Kniff m. das Kneifen, dadurch entstandene Falte in Papier oder Stoff, Mitte des 18. Jhs. zum Verb kneifen (s. d.) gebildet. Die Bedeutung Kunstgriff, Trick, List (ebenfalls 18. Jh., doch vgl. bereits gleichbed. mnd. knēp) leitet sich von der betrügerischen Kennzeichnung von Spielkarten durch Einkneifen her. – kniffen Vb. ‘in Falten legen, falzen’ (19. Jh.).DWDS

  • a) die urspr. bed. ist offenbar diebischer 'kunstgriff', diebskniff (vgl. diebsgriff 2, 1095), nd. dûvenknêp (dûve gleich hd. deube, diebstahl), diebsgriff, heimtückischer streich Brem. wb. 1, 278, Stürenb. 43b. doch könnte kniff bestimmter vom betrügerischen kneifen, kneipen der würfel und karten entstanden sein (s. kneipen II, 1, k)...Grimm

In short, the noun "der Kniff" was built from the verb "kneifen". The original meaning desribed the fraudulent folding or marking of playing cards.

The etymology of the English "knife" is somewhat unclear:

  • knife (n.) late O.E. cnif, probably from O.N. knifr, from P.Gmc. *knibaz (cf. M.L.G. knif, M.Du. cnijf, Ger. kneif), of uncertain origin. To further confuse the etymology, there also are forms in -p-, e.g. Du. knijp, Ger. kneip. French canif "penknife" (mid-15c.) is borrowed from Middle English or Norse.Etymonline

So there is some discussion for a possible common etymology of "knife" from German "kneif" but the relationship is not clear.

  • 1
    A "Kniff" has the characteristic of having s kind of edge, just like the blade of a knife. Could there be the connection or am I just guessing there?
    – 0x6d64
    May 1, 2012 at 8:03
  • Sounds like "knife," "Kniff," and "Kneifen" are all "sharp," and that's what they have in common.
    – Tom Au
    May 1, 2012 at 13:49

In Lower Franconia, around Aschaffenburg, there is the word Kneipchen used for small handy kitchen knives, so I'd say that knife doesn't correlate to Kniff but to Kneip / Kneipchen.

  • Kneipchen is also used in Hessen.
    – Titus
    Oct 31, 2016 at 12:38
  • I know Kneipchen as a small kitchen knife that you would use for peeling apples. In an old dictionary for Swabian, I find Kneip or Kneiper defined as a Schustermesser (shoemakers' knife) or Rebmesser (i.e., to cut wine grapes). Mar 4, 2019 at 15:24

Here is a link to the etymology of "Messer."


It refers specifically to an eating utensil. Of course, the meaning has become more general over time.

  • Please don't give answers that only reference a link.
    – Em1
    Oct 30, 2016 at 20:52

Edited answer.

The Messer is a knife (a tool) the kniff is a trick to solve a tricky (German: "knifflig") problem (based on knowledge or experience). A Kniff has nothing in common with a knife.


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