I was recently e-mailed by reader Peter Hirsch as follows: “Today’s FT [The Financial Times] (arguably not a British paper except for their persistent use of the verb to ‘back foot’) carries a column by US financier Steven Rattner which uses the term ‘knacker’ without its conventional accompaniment ‘yard.”

I confessed that I wasn’t familiar with the term and he explained:

The phrase that I grew up with (I have now lived in the US for 30 years), is “knacker’s yard,” a place to which aged and worn out horses were once sent to be killed and turned into useful post-life products — lard, rope material, bone meal etc.  The knacker was the man responsible for this work and the phrase was most commonly used in sentences like “he’s only good for the knacker’s yard.”

I looked up Rattner’s article. He said that under Republican Congressman Paul Ryan’s draft budget, Medicare “would be turned over to cash-starved states, the fiscal equivalent of being sent to the knacker for execution.”

Peter’s dissing of Rattner’s command of U.K. vernacular is mostly correct, my investigations find. That is, it appears, first, that a large majority of knacker’s are followed by yard. The OED cites this poem by Thom Gunn: “The graveyard is the sea… They have all come who sought distinction hard /To this universal knacker’s yard.”

And even when there’s no yard, the preferred form is knacker’s or knackers, not Rattner’s knacker. For example, this comment to an article about protest over treatment of show horses in the Greater Dandenong Weekly. (Yes, that is what the publication is called. See for yourself–and by the way, can anyone help me out with “furphy”?) “Do not believe the furphy that they are saved from the knackers either — do we honestly think owners and trainers bleeding the last dollars from the jumpers will retire them gracefully?”

But, in any form, is this a NOOB? No, Steven Rattner stands alone.

However, another sense of the word is definitely a comer, in my opinion, as seen in this 2011 quote from the New York Times:

Last week the prophet Elijah made a personal appearance at every Passover Seder around the world, or so we are told: most people are unable actually to see him, although parents have traditionally found ways to convince their children that Elijah sipped from the wine cup left for him. Taking all that on faith, you have to think that Elijah is one knackered prophet just now…

The etymology is interesting. Knackers was once used to mean castanets, from which derived its sense as slang for testicles (pause for chortle). This was used by James Joyce in Ulysses (1922): “Eh, Harry, give him a kick in the knackers.” That meaning in turn led to verb to knacker, which originated in late nineteenth century as a synonym for castrate and not until about 1970 (according to the OED) took on its current familiar (in the U.K.) meaning, knackered=exhausted.

Knacker, as a noun, has a new meaning, most common in Ireland, undreamt of by the OED. It can be seen in this recent online comment: “sad man indeed, sitting in his sad cooncil [sic] house with his sad little life ….what a knacker.” A column in the Irish Independent explains:

Knackers, for those naive souls unfamiliar with the word, is a term of abuse for what the urban dictionary describes as an “Irish adolescent subspecies”… “originally a derogatory term of reference for Travellers but nowadays covering a whole spectrum of degenerates”. Members of the tribe can generally be found hanging around outside fast food outlets and off- licences, picking fights with random strangers. ‘Skanger’ would be another term.

That’s all for now. I’m knackered.

44 thoughts on ““Knacker’s”/”Knackers”/”Knackered”/”Knacker”

  1. Chortling further…given so many offshoot meanings here, in particular, testicles (you started it), I”m surprised the term hasn’t been stretched even further, to include “knackers up” by some male analog to Rusty Warren.

  2. That’s an interesting Irish meaning.

    When I was growing up on a farm, if an animal was on it’s last legs, one would “phone the knacker” to come and shoot it in the head on the farm, then dispose of it. I always assumed that was normal, although I guess it may have been a newer procedure brought in to reduce transportation of livestock. Thus the knacker’s yard wasn’t referred to much, though if it was it would indeed have been “the knacker’s” rather than “the knacker’s yard”.

    The use of “knackers” to mean testicles is definitely still current, and I have seen it spelled without the first “k”, strangely enough, though God knows where. I think its continued use, and the continued use of its derivatives, is mainly down to the fact that it sounds quite funny. “Knackered” to mean exhausted is, to me, irreplaceable it’s so evocative of being ready to drop, though it’s somewhat worrying that I still find it amusing.

  3. I read one article (on IGN a few years ago) written by an American who had been in England for a while, and he mentioned that English people pronounce “knackered” as “nacked”. I thought that was terrible. No-one ever says it like that!

    1. “Knacked” is the shortened version of “Knackered” and is used very often and interchangeable. For example, if I wanted to say “My car is broken” using typical British Slang coupled with my Northern English Accent, it would end up “Me Car’s Knacked!”

  4. A furphy is an Australian term for an egregious rumour or story, with connotations of the rumour being not only untrue but wantonly mischievous or deceptive. “Obama wants to create death panels” or “Coca cola contains cocaine” would be furphies. Like an urban legend, a furphy is intended to engender some response in the hearer, either of reassurance or apprehension.

  5. Fun stuff. But has “knackers” in the testicular sense now morphed into “nadgers”, which I see around frequently?

    1. I have never heard “Nadgers” in my life. Knackers still means testicles but has been replaced (at least in my area) with “Bollocks”. I think the last time I heard the word knackers used in conversation was in the 90s.

      1. Nadgers, never quite defined, but definitely full of innuendo, were mentioned frequently by Kenneth Williams in his Rambling Syd Rumpo songs on the various Kenneth Horne radio shows. Wikipedia claims that the term had been used earlier by the Goons.

        Ballokes was used in the 1382 John Wycliffe Bible, so is hardly new!

  6. I humbly submit that “knacker’s” may derive from the Dutch word knoken, which means bones. It does make more sense for an old horse to be sent to the bone yard than to the castanets yard, doesn’t it?

  7. On Tyneside, the noun “knacker” can be used for either a person or a form of transport – always implying that they are broken down wrecks. So, bowling may be described as a sport for old knackers, and the school bus that carried pupils from Jesmond to Fenham in the 1960s was known as the Jezzie knacker.

  8. Furphy’s firm made water tanks to supply troops in the Great War. A furphy would seem to be a water-cooler rumour.

      1. Reminds me of a favourite “Not the Nine O’Clock News” comedy sketch from the Eighties. Prince Philip was criticised in the press for using the word ‘knackered’, and in the spoof news-item, he was said to have apologised for using the word and that “next time he was feeling shagged-out he’d keep his gob shut”.

      2. On a similar note, I spotted in the recent BBC article that led me to NOOB that ‘shag’ was being used more in the US these days in the vulgar sense. My brother-in-law’s wife, who is a Kentuckian says “shag your butt over here”, as in “get over here now” which rather took me by surprise the first time I heard it…

      3. The Carolina shag was a popular dance in the American southeast at one time (’50’s 60’s?) and references to it abound. Characters in Pat Conroy novels do it quite a bit. I wouldn’t be surprised if that’s where”shag your butt over here” comes from.

  9. “Knackers” also meant “to F off!”. First line of the play ‘Teachers’ “There’s no more school for us, so you can knackers!”

  10. Just so you know, as I understand it knackered is used as tired/very tired – but for some it means more specifically too tired to have sex. I once got told off by my parents for saying it as kid.

  11. Claudia, both “knackered” and “knackered out are used, the latter being a more complete exhaustion.

    I recall “knackered” being a term not to be used in front of or by children when I was young (being born before the 1970’s changeover). My mother was most upset if I used it. Because of it’s connections with “testicles” I suspect. That is why the more ‘polite’ “cream-crackered” originated – to express the same sentiment in polite company.

    1. Interesting – I too would say that “knackered out” is idiomatic and I wouldn’t think to use it with the extra “out” myself. I would compare it with “shagged” and “shagged out” – you would talk about a thing being “shagged”, e.g.”that bicycle is shagged”, or a person being “shagged out” to mean they are exhausted. But when you say a person is “shagged” that has a whole new meaning… However, I would replace both “shagged” and “shagged out” with just “knackered” (or Jacob’d?!). Just my two h’a’porth.

    1. I always took ‘knacked’ to mean broken, rather than tired or exhausted. So a thing can be either ‘knackered’ or ‘knacked’, i.e. it has ceased to function properly, whereas a person would be ‘knackered’, but they wouldn’t be ‘knacked’. Of course you could be knackered, because your knee was knacked (but now we’re heading toward the realm of the tongue-twister 🙂 ). On the other hand, I’m a soft Southerner, so what would I know!

  12. In James Herriot’s books he refers to “the knacker man” coming to pick up dead / dying livestock. This would place usage in Yorkshire in the 1930s / 1940s.

    1. That’s where I learned it, as an Anglophile American; the knacker man and the knacker yard. When I heard “knackered” in the context of “tired”, the analogy to an old “used-up” work animal seemed entirely clear. But then, I’m from Texas, and we have our own strong traditions of animal metaphors. The analogous animal action here is to be “sent to the glue factory”, though that hasn’t made the leap into being applied to humans.

  13. Some have alluded to it here but my parents told me that knackered meant tired/exhausted through sexual effort! According to them I was mis-using the word to mean tired. So a more polite term to describe feeling exhausted could be ‘shattered’ – as in “I’m shattered”. Having said that I don’t think I’ve ever come across some who thinks Knackered has that connotation.

  14. The earliest reference to ‘knacker’ that I am aware of is in Mediaeval English. Henry the 5th invaded France in mid August 1415.Landing close to Harfleur on the 14th of that month, he set about investing the town and was prepared for a long wait. Professional musicians accompanied the King for his entertainment. Singers, string players and percusionists included a ‘knackerer’ who played two small drums slung well below his waist, roughly at testicle level. Thus ‘knackers’, frequently used as a swear word in the 1970s manufacturing industry where I had my first job eg ‘why don’t you knackers?’
    Original source for the curious is Juliet Barkers excellent ‘Agincourt’ published by Abacus. Highly recommended reading as we approach 25th October which is the anniversary of the battle.
    I can tell you that the rain in France today is just as much of a pest as was then; ditto for the mud. I dont know, the thick end of 600 years experience and we English still struggle with the stuff!

  15. In Irish context Knacker is generally used as an equivalent to the British Chav, which isn’t used except where watching british tv.

    Originally as mentioned it was a derogratary term for Irish travellers. This ties in with a fact that Travellers were originally heavily involve in the “knackering” business when it came of disposing of horses.

    If you were to call a traveller a Knacker you probably end up in a coma tbh. Of course what’s happened since that it’s usage has switched. In Dublin by comparison Skanger/Gurrier is considerably more common.

  16. I have personally never heard or used ‘Knacked’ or ‘Knackered out’, and they both sound wrong to me, but I live in Suffolk, in East Anglia, and they may well be used elsewhere in the UK. On the other hand, ‘Knackered’, ‘Shagged’ and ‘Shagged Out’ are all in common use, along with ‘Bollocksed’, ‘Buggered’ and many other equally ‘rude’ words to mean ‘Tired’.

    ‘Shagged’, ‘Bollocksed’, Buggered’ and ‘Buggered Up’ are also used to mean ‘Ruined’ or ‘Spoiled’. ‘F*****d’ and ‘F****d Up’ have the same meaning, but ‘Shagged Up’ is, as far as I know, not used.

    I don’t have a clue what the actual rules for deciding which forms are ‘correct’ and which aren’t might be, but as in some of the examples given by previous posters, it is immediately noticeable when someone is using them in a form which is wrong. I suppose it’s all down to what one is familiar with.

    It may seem obvious to most people, but for the benefit of anyone trying to learn English, NONE of the expressions discussed in this thread should be used in ‘polite company’.

  17. Respectfully, the OED is wrong. When I went up to Cambridge in 1963 the phrase “totally knackered” was in frequent use by runners, cross country in particular, to describe their state of exhaustion after a very grueling race, or training session. I believe it may have been in use for many years prior.

  18. ‘Knacker’ comes from the 16th century English word ‘nacker’ meaning ‘saddler’ according to the 2005 Complete and Unabridged Collins English Dictionary and the ‘castrate’ and ‘castanets’ definitions mentioned here are absent. It also lists ‘a person who buys old buildings and breaks them up for scrap’.

    Wiktionary gives similar meanings and etymology but also has the meanings of ‘toy maker/maker of (k)nick-(k)nacks/a clapper made of wood or bone (similar to ‘castanet’)/someone who slaughters, renders and sells old horses/one who dismantles and sells old ship/a gypsy (in Ireland and Britain)/a chav (in Ireland)/a testicle/a collier’s horse (obs). Also it means, as a verb, ‘exhaust’ or ‘reprimand’.

    I always took ‘knacked’ to be a rare shortening of ‘Knick-knacked’, a polite alteration of ‘knackered’, but it is indeed a simple shortening of ‘knackered’ according to Collins.

    I’ve never personally heard the following meanings used in the U.K.:- saddler/harness maker, clapper/castanet, castrate, building or ship breaker, toy maker, chav (other than from Irish people), collier’s horse, or reprimand. All of these seem to be obscure, regional or historical terms (or in the case of ‘castanet’ and ‘castrate’, incorrect).

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