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.