There are numerous words which we use in daily life conversations, which we don’t even know the meaning of. We use it hundreds of times in twenty four hours, in one context or other, but rarely do we introspect or think how such a word came into use, or what its real connotation is.

Look at this word in Malayalam – “Knappan!”

It is a regular swear word used by the average malayalee, from Kasargod to Trivandrum, and from Dubai to Toronto. Some may say – “Nee enthoru Knappan aaneda”etc, with the implied meaning that what a useless fellow you are. Or may just say “Knappan” at the person one may dislike.

Every malayalee reading this would know that. But let us have a look at what is the real meaning of this word, and how did it come into regular use.

I dug into various dictionaries to have a look at the literary meaning of Knappan. But it turned out to be a gross failure. Alas, there is no urban dictionary in Malayalam to keep a track of swear words and double meaning lingo, so I had to make inferences from my own sources.

Knappan in Malayalam means “somebody who is not welcome with his ideas and plans as they are sure to fail, this supposition derived from previous experiences of dealing with him”

At last I had to take the help of Google, with inputs from an understandably knowledgeable person whose area of expertise is Malayalam language to come to his conclusion. But the interesting part of this story is how this word was born, and how it came into regular use in Malayalam.

Malabar has always had a glorious history of interaction with the foreign world, right from pre-medieval times, first the Romans, then Arabs, Chinese and later on the Europeans beginning with the Portuguese. If you walk through the villages of today’s Cannanore, you can see a lot of people using words, which may look very much Malayalee, but are actually loan words from foreign languages. Words like kakkūs, Kaappi, Thapal, alamāra, chāya, chāvi, chākku, isthiri, kalasam, kadalas, mesthiri, mesha, koppa, and a lot more are loan wordsthat are derived directly from Portuguese and Dutch who have lived in Malabar. And these are words that are used by all of us without an iota of doubt regarding their origins. I too have learnt and heard a lot of them, especially from my grandparents, who were born and brought up in an era when there was a British Collector doing the administration in this part of my world.

So, as the Knappan story goes, let us rewind to the turbulent days of the rule of British Administration in Malabar, when it was part of the Madras Presidency. Malabar was a fidgety place, and the Mappila Riots of 1921 had just not happened yet. It was at this time, that one gentleman from England, Sir Arthur Rowland Knappwas appointed the Assistant Collector and Magistrate at Malabar District.

Sir Knapp, had cleared the Indian Civil Services, and was just in his twenties when he was appointed to this post. Born in 1870, He joined the civil service in 1891, and this was when he was posted to Malabar. There was a lot of subdued anger among the populace of the district, and this had not come to the fore yet. It was just two generations ago that the struggles of Pazhassihad ended, and the memories of the actions of the British East India Company, the Mysore Army, and other belligerents had not yet been forgotten. The people were still having profound memories of the rules of their Rajas, and the rulers from the Civil Services were finding it difficult to read the pulse of the public.

So, Knapp joined, and soon began to set in motion various administrative, policy and police reforms that were at the best Tugluqan in nature. His activities were a total failure, and despite some being good on paper, were nothing but waste of time and energy for others.

It was at this time, that the local populace started using the words – “Doing things like Knapp Sayipp” for somebody who was trying to make things happen that with ideas that had the least probability of success. Slowly the lines got tailored into a synonym called Knappan, which till today, remains testimony to the futile administrative skills in Malabar of Sir A.R. Knapp.

Despite his perceived failure in Malabar, in 1899, Knapp Sayipp was appointed Under-secretary in the Board of Revenue rising to become Secretary. He was made a Commander of the Order of the British Empire in 1919 and Knight Commander of the Order of the Indian Empire in the 1924 New Year Honours list. Also, in 1923, Knapp was nominated to the Madras Legislative Council and served from 1923 to 1926.

Sir Arthur Rowland Knapp died on 22 May 1954 at the age of 83. But his memories linger on in Kerala, by design or accident of fate, where every day somebody or the other is called a Knapp by someone.


I was quite unaware of the story behind the “Knappan” story until I happened to listen to a quiz programme on All India Radio Kannur where this question behind the origin of this word was asked to the participants, but nobody was able to answer.

Wikipedia and Google have minuscule information on this topic. The exact nature of Sir AR Knapp’s failed administrative reforms needs to be dug out from the archives.