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What Does "Beyond the Ken" Mean?

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  • Written By: Tricia Ellis-Christensen
  • Edited By: Jessica Seminara
  • Last Modified Date: 02 September 2014
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"Beyond the ken" means something that cannot be explained or understood. The word ken is Scottish for knowing, and dates back even farther to the Anglo-Saxon term, cennan, which means to bring forth or conceive. Though the Anglo-Saxon word is slightly different, there is a strong relationship between the two terms, and speakers may use beyond the ken to mean surpassing conception. According to some language enthusiasts, the origin of the expression is much later, and written use of the term is often believed to have first occurred in the 19th century.

Even though ken and cennan derive from language used on the British Isles, the first printed use of the term may have occurred in the 1830s, in a US newspaper called The Republican Banner. Other examples of the idiom can be found in 19th century American writing. Some word experts don’t believe British people wrote the term until the mid-20th century, when the popular radio show Beyond our Ken aired.

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This belief can be picked apart quite easily. First, it’s likely that beyond the ken was a phrase in common use by Scottish people who immigrated to the US, dating the origin of the expression to a much earlier time. Additionally, it’s doubtful the radio host in Britain, whose name was Kenneth Horne, would have titled his show with a pun, if he did not believe it would be understood. Thus, there is a good chance that this idiomatic phrase was regularly said and written in England before the 1950s. Unfortunately, written or recorded uses of the expression were not faithfully tracked, and this makes it difficult to attribute its origin to a specific person or writer.

No matter where and when the phrase originated, there are two slightly different ways that beyond the ken can be used. One is as a simple statement of fact, which refers to things that cannot be known. The following sentence provides an example of this: The precise number of planets in the universe is beyond the ken. If the universe is infinite, it’s simply impossible to know how many planets exist; infinity can’t be counted.

Alternately, this idiomatic expression can be used in an exaggerative way to state a person’s failure to understand something. An example of this might be the following: It’s beyond the ken why Beatrice is marrying that man. Really, the speaker is saying he has a hard time understanding Beatrice’s choice or he is mystified by it. Theoretically, if he sat down with a pen and paper or a good psychology book, he could come up with many reasons why Beatrice has chosen this particular fiancé, even if he doesn’t agree with them. Saying it’s beyond the ken in this case is hyperbole to emphasize how odd the choice seems.

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