A Knife glossary for Non-Knife Geeks
I have been nagging Saunders for about 647 days to write a glossary of knife terms. Just a quick run down of the finishes and shapes with the aim of demystifying some of the Japanese terminology. Would he do it? Would he heck. Like getting blood out of a stone. But hang on just one minute, perhaps a novice guide to knives is in fact better written by a true novice. It might be the blind leading the blind but what little knowledge I have garnered I am willing to share - and by knowledge, read a smattering of key words and a willingness to blag. Here goes, eight common terms to get you started....
1) TANG: The tang is the part of the blade that connects to the handle. The idea is that a full tang helps ensure that the blade is securely attached to the handle. A lot of knives have a half tang where the blade stops half way inside the handle. Apparently, the jury is out on whether a full tang is essential for a well made knife with a solid wood handle unless it impacts on the balance, but it's still worth establishing this if only to look like your knife chat is on point.
What to say: "Is this blade full or half tang?"
What not to say: "Can I see it?"
2) KUROUCHI: This refers to the blackened, textured finish on some knives. It is referred to as a blacksmith's finish as its comes from leaving the residue from forging on the blade. It looks pretty cool but also helps protect carbon steel blades as it is far less reactive - like the seasoning on a cast iron pan.
What to say: "Ah... Japanese brut de forge"
What not to say: "Does this stainless steel blade come with a kurouchi finish?"
3) FERRULE: the ring or cap that sits at the blade-end of the handle to strengthen it. It can be made from ebony, horn or metal and can either discreetly tone in with the handle or add a bit of bling.
What to say: "Is the ferrule sui-gyu [water buffalo]?"
What not to say: "All for one and one ferrule!" while waving the blade round like D'Artagnan.
4) TSUCHIME: this is a hand-hammered, dimpled finish that looks pretty cool but also creates recesses which means whatever you are cutting falls easily away from the blade. Perfect on a slicer.
What to say: "From the Edo-period onwards, the tsuchime finish on Japanese swords was actually achieved with a chisel rather than a hammer."
What not to say: "T-Su-Chime" (put a bit of a swing on it - Su-Chi-meh)
5) SAYA: the sheath that comes with some - usually high end - knives. It is typically made from the same wood as the handle and fastens with a pin. Each knife comes with its own saya and there isn't really a "one-size-fits-all" option.
What to say: "Is this saya made from honoki [Japanese Magnolia]?"
What not to say: "Saya what?"
6) SHIROGAMI/AOGAMI: Shirogami (white steel) and aogami (blue steel) are the most common steel types. Shirogami is the purest steel with the fewest impurities which creates the sharpest blades. Aogami steel has been mixed with chrome and tungsten. There are different grades of both, dependent on the carbon content - the higher the carbon content, the sharper they can get but also the more brittle they become.
What to say: "How do you rate the edge retention of shirogami versus aogami?"
What not to say: "Origami"
7) DISTAL TAPER: this refers to the thinning of the knife from the spine to edge and from ferrule to tip. The way in which it tapers determines how the knife handles and gives each blade its character.
What to say: "The distal taper gives excellent blade geometry"... then punch the air, as you have really nailed this knife chat.
What not to say: Any gags about this being the title of a prog rock band or difficult second album, even though both are likely true.
8) SHINOGI LINE: The line that separates the flat surface of the blade from the primary bevel. It isn't a literal line, just where the angle of the surface changes.
What to say: "The Shinogi line is really prominent on this deba"
What not to say: "Does the Shinogi line go to the airport?"
While I don't speak fluent knife, I do have a fair bit of Japanese under my belt. This both helps and hinders. The terminology is in many cases quite literal, relying on colours (shirogami, kurouchi) and numbers (san mai). The pronunciation is syllabic and not tonal - consonant-vowel-say-what-you-see-in-a-dull-monotone. If you can't remember any of these knife terms, it is even easier to keep stuhm and just practice some general knife etiquette with three simple rules. Firstly, keep your hot sticky fingers away from any polished blades. Secondly, pick them up carefully and don't wave them around or gesticulate wildly, knife in hand. Thirdly, and this sounds bleedingly (ha, ha) obviously but these knives are sharp. Super sharp but please don't run your finger along the edge to check. Simples.