This came across my Twitter feed yesterday.

Hillary Kelly is an American journalist, identified on her Twitter bio as a Philadelphia native. “Knob,” according to the OED, has two groups of meanings. The first, used both in Britain and America, refers to “A rounded lump or protuberance, and related senses.” The second, mainly British, refers to a penis, literally and figuratively.

The first literal citation is from 1922. Martin Amis used it in 1973 in The Rachel Papers: “My knob was knee-high to a grasshopper, the size of a toothpick.”

The first figurative citation, denoting “An annoying, unpleasant, or idiotic person (esp. a man or boy),” interestingly, is from 1920. All the examples are from British, Irish or Canadian writers, an example of the last being Douglas Coupland in his 1991 novel Generation X: “I’d made all these plans to meet before, but he kept breaking them, the knob.”

And by the way, here’s a video giving the varying pronunciations of the word:

It’s hard to search for frequency of this sense of the “knob,” since there are so many others. I chose to search for the phrase “such a knob” on Google Ngram Viewer, and got this result:

For the same reason outlined in the paragraph above, it’s hard to quantify American uses, besides Kelly’s, of the insult. My best luck was with the tool in Tweetdeck that lets you search for tweets including a word or phrase that have been sent from a particular location. I chose a 200 km radius from New York City. There was a good bounty, surely because so many knobs have been acting knobbish in this country in recent days.

This one is from Western New York:

And this from the Adirondack Mountains of New York:

Then there’s this one, from Rhode Island, that suggests new avenues for research:

20 thoughts on ““Knob”

  1. Two questions (not really NOOBs): – why do Americans say “happy NEW year” while Brits say “Happy New YEAR” (as a Brit, the latter sounds better, but the former makes more sense) – and why are Americans always adding “at”, as in “Where are you at” rather than the British “Where are you” (not mention “where are you located”

    Tony Glaser


  2. Prick, dick and tool are similar insults to knob. I can’t think if I’ve heard them used by Americans either. What would be most common in the US?

    1. Which reminds me of a review of the year’s TV in the paper recently. Someone mentioned a line from the BBC sitcom Ghosts. When the ghost of a regency poet is told that a man has walked on the moon, he replies, “You have dicked your knob!” Sounds obscene but it appears to be genuine period slang for gone mad – it’s in Grosse’s Dictionary of the Vulgar Tongue.

    1. There’s also “With knobs on” meaning with something added. And also used in the insult “The same to you, with knobs on.”

    2. There was a comedy – can’t recall which one right now – where someone was described as having “arms of steel, heart of oak, knob of butter”.

    3. It reminds me of a frankly awful joke “Waiter, Waiter, do you have a knob of butter?” “No, it’s just the way I walk”

  3. Knob is also UK slang for the head. Many pubs named The King’s Head are called “the Knob” by locals. Some pubs are full of knobs!

    1. Sort of related – some years ago the then Conservative (aka Tory) Prime Minister David Cameron was alleged to have placed his penis inside a dead pig’s head in a fit of youthful japery. This resulted in much comment, including this from a comedian: “I tried to get into The Boar’s Head the other night, but it was full of Tory pricks”.

      “Full of Tory knobs” would be better & more relevant, but I remember it as pricks, unfortunately – and probably the comedian picked pricks over knobs to avoid the homophonic confusion, as mentioned above, between nobs and knobs, as Tory politicians are slightly more capable of being either and both than those from other parties.

  4. In some parts of Canada we have extended and de-sexualized “knob” by using “doorknob” as a synonym for a jerkish or idiotic man. “What a doorknob” was a favorite expression when I was a teenager and my high school classes often seemed to be made up of doorknobs. To be fair, all those doorknobs might have thought that I was pretty annoying.

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