Look at this stylish little word. It has lines vertical, horizontal, and diagonal, plus an almost-circle. It’s almost architectural. And it has such a snappy crisp sound. It looks like it could be a brand name – shoes, maybe? (That’s Keds.) Some kind of stock exchange symbol? (KEX is the NYSE ticker symbol for Kirby Corporation, and it also stands for the Kansai Commodities Exchange in Japan.) Perhaps a sci-fi character? (Actually yes, Kex is a Mandalorian in the “extended Star Wars universe.”) Does it mean complain? (That’s yex.) Annoy? (Vex.) Curse? (Which is hex.)
Could it be a slang word? (In northern England and southern Scotland, it means “trousers” or “underpants” – also spelled kecks.) Is it perhaps something from Greek? (Well, it is part of the sound the frogs make in Aristophanes’ Frogs: brekekekex koax koax.) Maybe Icelandic? (Indeed: in Iceland kex means cookie or cracker.)
I’ll tell you what kex makes me think of, or what makes me think of kex. You know when your throat feels like one of those hollow dry plant stems, and you just have to cough, and the cough catches and leaves your throat feeling even more like that hollow stem, perhaps ready to snap? That sound makes me think of kex, or kex makes me think of that sound, or both. (Aina and I are currently coughing back and forth at each other. It’s like a battle of the kexes.)
Any dry, hollow stem of that sort can also make me think of kex. Plants that have them – cow parsnip, wild chervil, marsh angelica, poison hemlock, and other large umbelliferous plants – are called kexes. They get the name from their stems, which bore the name kex first (by the 1300s), though the OED tells me that the usage to refer specifically to the stems is obsolete except for dialectal. No one seems to know where the word comes from; I doubt that it is any more than coincidence that a kex, when broken, might make a sound like “kex.” (So do many other things, such as a finger snap.)
Oh, was there a word back there that might have been unfamiliar? Not everyone knows what umbelliferous means, so I should say it means “having an umbel”. And what’s an umbel? Here’s the OED’s definition: “A mass of inflorescence borne upon pedicels of nearly equal length springing from a common centre.” Isn’t that nice and clear and helpful and easy? Here’s a plainer picture: it’s a plant that has as its head a whole bunch of little flowers spoking out from the main stem like the ribs of a blown umbrella. As it happens, another word for umbel is umbella. And it is unrelated to umbrella. Aren’t words fun?
Sure, kex kex, lots of fun, kex kex kex. Could I just get to sleep now? Where’s that hemlock? That oughta fix it. Oh, no, no, no… Relax and delectate the lexis. Go have a snack. Perhaps an Icelandic cookie. Or some cake mix.