A penknife, or pen knife, is a British English term for a small folding knife. 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.
Originally, penknives were used for thinning and pointing quills to prepare them for use as dip pens and, later, for repairing or re-pointing the nib. A penknife might also be used to sharpen a pencil, prior to the invention of the pencil sharpener. 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.
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.
- 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,
- Moore, Simon (1988). Penknives and Other Folding Knives. Osprey Publishing. pp. 25–26. ISBN 978-0-85263-966-5.
- 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...
- Shackleford, Steve (5 January 2010). Blade's Guide to Knives & Their Values. Iola, Wisconsin: Krause Publications. pp. 219–222. ISBN 1-4402-1505-7.