A Knee by Any Other Name

A graduate of Columbia University’s graduate school of journalism, Sylvia Auerbach lives in New York City and is an editor for a publishing house.

It lies between the distal end of the femur and the proximal end of the tibia. It’s the diarthrotic or hinge type of joint, and its movements are described as “flexion and extension, with a slight rotation of the tibia.” It’s the largest sesamoid bone of the body, and it’s known as the patella. A lot of fellas have been looking at a lot of patellae this year, since a patella is better known as a kneecap. The kneecap is located in the tendon of the quadriceps femoris muscle to protect the underlying knee joint. When this joint is extended, as when a girl gets up from a seat at a cocktail party to get a look at a man who has just come, the patellar outline may be distinguished through the skin, showing, if she is lucky, curves and knee dimples. When she sinks back in her chair again (after noticing that the young man wears a wedding band) die knee sinks back into its intercondylar notch of the femur.

In the days when there were domestic servants, they spent so much time on their knees that they developed inflammation of the prepatellar bursa, a condition known among physicians as “housemaid’s knee” — not to be confused with inflammation of the olecranon bursa, or “student’s elbow.”

A strategic whack on the knee of someone whose legs are crossed will result in what is known in medical texts as the patellar reflex or knee jerk, which shows that the victim’s spinal reflex arcs are working well. This is sometimes followed by other reflex actions which prove that the person’s fist-aiming reflexes and threshold of anger are also in good working condition.

Veterinarians have been treating animals for a condition known as

“knee-sprung,” which happens when a beast stays too long in a kneeling condition. It has become a common complaint in dairies where the milking sheds have recently been automated. The cows feel alienated by the cold metal machines, and express their distaste through kneel-down strikes.

In automobiles the knee is “that type of wheel suspension permitting independent vertical movement of each front wheel.” It is a design found mostly in the cars of women drivers who want to make left-hand turns from right-hand lanes.

Falling on one’s knees has always been symbolic of pleading some cause, from asking the gods to have eagles carry off one’s enemies to asking a young lady to get married. Shakespeare said that “supple knees feed arrogance and are the proud man’s fees.” Mickey Spillane is credited with being the first author to identify an age-old game when he said in Big Kill (1951) that “we got back to the table and played kneesies,” which is defined in the Dictionary of American Slang as “underthe-table amorous play in which one touches, rubs, or bumps with one’s knees the knees of the person of the opposite sex.”

Bare knees, in fashion, have been dubbed by Women’s Wear Daily as the “knack-knee” look — a look which is baring many problems. When a knack-kneed lady sits down she exposes not only knee, but also thigh, stocking top, and garter, or what is known in the corset business as the suspension system. Hosiery manufacturers, rising to the occasion, have designed stockings that have either no visible top or a top that is decorative. The theory is that no one minds if the top shows, as long as it’s attractive.

Working girls who ride the subways had to resort to subterfuge until the new stockings were on the market. Extra-large handbags, briefcases, and shopping bags made good lap guards. Morning newspapers were no longer read, but were carefully placed across the stocking gap. In a pinch, or to avoid one, even interoffice mail envelopes were pressed into service.

The late Christian Dior once called knees the “ugliest part of the body.” Elegant beauty salons say that knees should be denuded of excess hair, covered with a liquid makeup to contour them, and given a natural blush with a touch of color. Jacques Tiffeau, of the haute couture design world, said that if women don’t cover up their ugly faces, why should they worry about covering up their knees?

But in the office, desk manufacturers have for years been covering the knee space between a desk’s two pedestals with a piece of wood known as the “modesty board” — and never has the term been so apt. Companies whose desks are not equipped with modesty boards are seriously considering installing them, as soon as they can persuade carpenters that such work is not disloyal to their fellow workers.

In the meantime, knowledgeable men, queried on this exposure, state that the knee itself is only a symbol. What really counts is what’s below or above it.