A simple penknife.
A simple penknife.
Using a penknife to cut a pen
Using a penknife to cut a pen

Penknife, or pen knife, is a British English term for a small folding knife.[1] Today the word penknife is the common British English term for both a pocketknife, which can have single or multiple blades, and for multi-tools, with additional tools incorporated into the design.[2]

Originally, penknives were used for thinning and pointing quills (cf. penna, Latin for feather) to prepare them for use as dip pens and, later, for repairing or re-pointing the nib.[1] A penknife might also be used to sharpen a pencil,[3] prior to the invention of the pencil sharpener. In the mid-1800s, penknives were necessary to slice the uncut edges of newspapers and books.[4]

A penknife did not necessarily have a folding blade, but might resemble a scalpel or chisel by having a short, fixed blade at the end of a long handle. One popular (but incorrect) folk etymology makes an association between the size of a penknife and that of a small ballpoint pen.

During the 20th century there has been a proliferation of multi-function knives with assorted blades and gadgets, including; awls, reamers, scissors, nail files, corkscrews, tweezers, toothpicks, and so on. The tradition continues with the incorporation of modern devices such as ballpoint pens, LED torches/flashlights, and USB flash drives.[5]

The most famous example of a multi-function penknife is the Swiss Army knife, some versions of which number dozens of functions and are really more of a folding multi-tool, incorporating a blade or two, than a penknife with extras.[5]

A larger folding knife, especially one in which the blade locks into place, is often called a claspknife.[5]

See also


  1. ^ a b A Society of Gentlemen in Scotland (1773). Volume 3. Oxford University: John Donaldson 195 The Strand. p. 524. Retrieved 18 December 2014. upon your knee with the back of a penknife,
  2. ^ Moore, Simon (1988). Penknives and Other Folding Knives. Osprey Publishing. pp. 25–26. ISBN 978-0-85263-966-5.
  3. ^ Arthur Machen (1895). The Three Impostors. London: John Lane. As he came along in the train, he had been sharpening a pencil, and the sudden jolt of the engine as it drew up at a station had driven the penknife against his face...
  4. ^ Flanders, Judith (2014). The Victorian City: Everyday Life in Dickens' London. New York, NY: St. Martin's Press. p. 152. ISBN 978-1-250-04021-3.
  5. ^ a b c Shackleford, Steve (5 January 2010). Blade's Guide to Knives & Their Values. Iola, Wisconsin: Krause Publications. pp. 219–222. ISBN 978-1-4402-1505-6.