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:


Reader Evan Geller sent in this quote from Florida writer Diane Roberts in the Washington Post:

DeSantis, a fervent Trump partisan and sports fan who’s shown signs of harboring presidential ambitions, has seen his popularity shrivel of late, possibly because of his cackhanded approach to the pandemic in Florida: opening up too soon, refusing to mandate masks, hiding virus data from the public.

The key term is “cackhanded,” I hyphenate it to follow the OED, which gives this definition: “Left-handed; ham-handed, clumsy, awkward.” It shows up first in an 1854 glossary of Northamptonshire words, spelled “keck-handed.” The etymology “perhaps” comes from “cack,” an archaic word for excrement.

A search at Google News reveals the word is pretty common in the U.K. and Ireland, as in this recent headline from The Irish Times:

But it is quite rare in the United States. The term, in all its variants, has appeared in the New York Times just five times (other than cases where a British speaker is quoted) — all from the same writer! In 1995, political columnist William Safire referred to a politician’s “kak-handed pronouncement.” A few weeks later, wearing his other hat as language columnist, Safire wrote about using it as an example of his propensity “to throw in an obscure word now and then.” And a few weeks after that, he apologized for spelling it wrong the first time. Four years later, he praised a dictionary for including the word.

And finally, in 2008, Safire gave it one more shot, this time with the correct spelling. He referred to an adviser to presidential candidate John McCain’s

impolitic comment to Fortune magazine that a terror attack “would be a big advantage” for his candidate, who is highly credentialed on national-security matters. McCain had to quickly dissociate himself from the cack-handed remark: “I can’t imagine why he would say it.”

Update: I am reliably informed that “cackhanded” user Diane Roberts got her Ph.D. from Oxford University and is a Visiting Fellow in Creative Writing at the University of Northumbria.


I was surprised to find that I have never covered this term for a stupid or foolish person, given that I have done wazzock and shitgibbon, and that British insults are much in the air. The OED describes “numpty” as originating in Scotland and gives this possible etymology: “Origin uncertain; perhaps an alteration of numps n. or numbskull n., with ending perhaps remodelled after humpty-dumpty n.” The first citation is from 1985  (‘They are a pair of turkeys,’ he said. ‘Numpties, the both of them.’–P. Firth, The Great Pervader), and more recent ones show a migration to England.

Neither the OED nor Green’s Dictionary of Slang show U.S. use, but the term did appear in the New York Times in 2009, when Dallas-born novelist Bill Cotter said:

In the mid-’80s, Boston’s Kenmore Square, where part of [his novel Fever Chart] is set, was home to three-card-monte men, ordinary punks, beer-devastated Red Sox bleacher-seat numpties, the Guardian Angel menace, and the only music venue worth visiting in that fourth-rate city, the Rat, a black basement often populated with bloody-nosed hardcore girls swinging tiny fists of stone.

More recently, I’ve started to see it over on Twitter, inevitably regarding the most frequent subject of all these insults, the U.S. president. As I’ve noted previously, the Tweetdeck application lets you filter tweets geographically. Here are some recent ones that use “numpty” and were posted within 200 kilometers of New York City:

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