Wills Words Of The Week: “knackered”

Until next time, take care! 30 January 2010

Venturing off the beaten etymological path this week, I figured it might be rather fun to look at a bit of slang, in this case, British slang. As an American, I must confess to being quite bewildered by ordinary words here, let alone slang. I even get “knackered” by it all sometimes. I have to thank my friend Whitney Little for suggesting that we look at it.

To be knackered is, of course, to be thoroughly exhausted or worn out. It comes from the noun, “knacker,” or someone “whose trade it is to buy worn out, diseased, or useless horses, and slaughter them for their hides and hoofs, and for making dog’s-meat, etc.; a horse-slaughterer,” as defined by the Oxford English Dictionary (or OED). By itself, a “knacker” can additionally refer to the worn-out horse proper (as well as to a part of a fellow’s anatomy that shall remain nameless), but also to those who purchase old houses and ships for salvage; this business takes place in a knacker’s yard. To get truly knackered is thus technically a fatal fate, as it were, or at least a recycled one: you might be tired, but at least you are not glue or a broken-up ship’s keel.

The older meaning of the word, from the 16th century, was that of a harness-maker, possibly, as the OED speculates demurely, from the small “knacks” that composed the harness. In this case, though it has other meanings (such as “trick,” hence “knacker” as “trickster”), a “knack” is, or rather, was a knick-knack in the obsolete sense of trinket or bauble, found in a knackatory, or a knick-knackatory, a place for such trifles. “Knack” has an imitative origin as a word for an abrupt, clacking noise (and hence from the Norwegian “knekkja,” meaning “to break, snap”).

The first use of “knacker” in written English comes to us from back in about 1573, from Thomas Tusser’s rustically poetical treatise on farming, Five Hundreth Pointes of Good Husbandrie, with the line, “Plowwrite, cartwrite, knacker and smith” (a definition, seemingly). Tusser (c. 1524-1580) spent a brief time at Cambridge at first King’s and then Trinity Colleges as a sizar scholar (working for his courses) before embarking on a career in farming that nonetheless inspired his Hesiod-like thoughts on the subject. Finally, the first more modern use of “knacker” appears in an 1812 issue of Sporting Magazine, with the line, “He was a knacker .”

I hope you are not knackered out after that bit of knackery. If not, and if you have any word-related queries, etymological thoughts, please write to willswords@tcs.cam.ac.uk.

Until next time, take care!