Turkish straight penknife
20th-century penknife


From Middle English penne knyfe; equivalent to pen +‎ knife.


penknife (plural penknives)

  1. (archaic) Originally a small utility knife for cutting the points of quill feathers or reeds into nibs to provide or repair writing implements in times before pens with artificial nibs, generally metal, became commercially available in the 19th century. Early versions of penknives commonly were small sheath knives.
    • 1689, John Flavel, Christ Knocking at the Door:
      Every sin is damning without Christ. "The wages of sin is death". It is no great difference, if a man be killed, whether it be by a sword or a penknife. The least sin violates the whole law. He that offendeth in one point, is guilty of all.
  2. (dated) A small knife designed for safe and convenient storage, typically in the form of a miniature clasp-knife, or with blade retractable into the handle. For the most part, such more convenient designs eventually replaced rigid penknives in cutting quill pens or sharpening pencils.
    • 1906, Rudyard Kipling, Puck of Pook's Hill:
      Presently the man took a reed pen from his satchel, and trimmed it with a little ivory knife, carved in the semblance of a fish.
      "Oh, what a beauty!" cried Dan.
      "’Ware fingers! That blade is perilous sharp. I made it myself of the best Low Country crossbow steel. And so, too, this fish. When his back-fin travels to his tail — so — he swallows up the blade, even as the whale swallowed Gaffer Jonah."
  3. As the need to cut nibs for pens fell away, but small utility pocket-knives remained popular, "penknife" became synonymous with "pocket-knife". Modern penknives often incorporate other tools such as corkscrews, but as a rule are smaller than general-purpose pocketknives.


See alsoEdit

Middle EnglishEdit



  1. Alternative form of penne knyfe