The word knob

The word knob 1

It’s been a long time since I’ve heard someone use the word knob – as in ‘you knob’, ‘you idiot’ – let alone write it. So when it popped up recently in a student’s assignment, I was intrigued. Was the word making a come-back?

Decades ago, in the early 1960s, it was common coinage among the band of young boys I ran with on the Fish Hoek sand dunes. But then we grew up and went our ways and the word was replaced by a plethora of others that were more forceful in describing, well, knobs. And then, after lying dormant for so long suddenly there it is in an assignment on one of my courses. Which is the thing about creative writing courses that I most enjoy: you just don’t know what’s going to come out of the woodwork.

Anyhow it sent me off on a hunt to find out when the word had entered the language both in its common form before acquiring its prurient and colourful slang-version. What better place to start than a truly engaging dictionary called: Cassell’s Dictionary of Slang. No writer should be without one. But before I go there, here are the conventional definitions of knob from the South African Concise Oxford Dictionary.

Be warned

Knob n 1 a rounded hump or ball, especially at the end or on the surface of something. 2 a ball-shaped handle on a door or drawer. 3 a round button on a machine. 4 a small lump of something. 5 (chiefly N. Amer) a prominent round hill. 6 Wait for it…

Before definition 6 there is:

Knobkerrie n S. African a short stick with a knobbed head, used as a weapon – Origin 19C from knob + kerrie (from Nama kieri), suggested by Afrikaans knopkierie.

Of course, the word knob in the assignment wasn’t being used to refer to a hump or a handle or a button on a machine or a knob-headed weapon. It referred to definition 6 (vulgar slang) a man’s penis. This required a whole different order of research.

As per the Cassell’s.

Knob n 1 [late 17C+] the head. 2 [late 19C+] (also cock-knob) the head of the penis. And so on and so forth.

The knob’s progress

And so the word drifts through the twentieth century mostly as a reference to the male organ until it amazingly morphs into knobbies (female breasts) and then (mostly in the US) in the 1930s to a woman’s nipples. Finally in the 1950s+ it enters US teen-speak as ‘a general term of abuse’. Which was how we used it back in the 1960s. And how it was used in the UK at about the same time.

Off on a parallel track, the word found its way into Australia as ‘a swindling fairground game’ while back in the US from the 1930s-1960s it was the word for ‘stylish, up-to-date shoes with shined toecaps’ worn by pantsulas. Interestingly, I don’t remember the Drum journalists of the 1950s – who borrowed heavily from things American – using it. 

Needless to say its 19C meaning stays prominent in slang before taking on a more violent turn up to the 1950s when it described a ‘hit in the face’. Four decades later it had become a male term for having sex.

Things get worse

At this point – and in the interests of good taste – I’ll refer you to the Cassell’s where you can find the definitions for such interesting variations on the word as knobhead to far more suggestive words such as with knob jockey, knob-shiner, knob s–t, and knob stick. Which brings us back to knobkerrie as a knob stick is ‘a club with a rounded head used by strike-breakers as a weapon’, according to Cassell’s.

Knob in literature

Despite the many inventive varieties of knob in the Cassell’s, the word doesn’t seem to have much currency in novels. In fact I couldn’t recall reading any fiction where knob was used in the vulgar sense – despite my deep immersion in crime fiction. Of course, there is always Shakespeare. And here’s a wonderful description of Bardolph in Henry V: “… if your Majesty know the man; his face is all bubukles, and whelks, and knobs, and flames o’fire…”

The English novelist Margaret Kennedy uses knob in a more genteel fashion. To the statement: “I’m waiting for the Marchese Ferdinando Emanuele Maria Bonaventura Donzati.” Her character, Gemma says airly, “With knobs on. Who’s he?” From The Fool of the Family,(1930).

Finally, there is a handy online weekly for writers called The Weekly Knob – heaven alone knows why – which posts stories and competitions and offers support to writers. You can find more about it here.

That’s it, with brass knobs on.