Fraser’s Phrases: ‘Knackered’

The Knacker Man and his cart

There’s a great moment in one of the comedian Bill Hicks’s routines, in which he’s talking about being annoyed by a child while on British Airways. He’s playing to a British audience, and clearly he’s just learned a new word that he wants to try out:

“I was on this one flight right, I’m flying, I’m sleeping on the plane, I’m f***ing ‘knackered'”

And he says it with audible airquotes around it, as uncomfortable as someone who has just had an earwig plopped onto his tongue and been told not to swallow. That’s how alien this incredibly common snippet of British slang is. For someone whose entire comic persona is the hard-boiled wise-acre with access to the all of the fundamental truths of things, it’s a vulnerable and charming moment.

The origin of the word itself is very simple. A knacker’s yard is the place animals are taken for slaughter if their meat is considered unfit for human consumption. Most commonly that means horses, whose remains have been used for dog food and in the manufacture of glue.

So if you say you’re knackered, you mean you feel as tired as an old and useless horse, fit only for the knacker’s yard. The minor variation being that knackered (or sometimes “knacked”) can also be used to describe something which is broken, and unfixable.

It’s odd, really, because you’d expect the word to be “knackerable” rather than the past-tense “knackered”, which implies you’re glue already, but that’s slang for you.

As a phrase, knackered is not for polite use, but not offensive either. It’s the sort of thing you’d say to a friend in a bar after a hard day, rather than to your boss. But it’s pleasingly full of those hard consonants that the best swear words seem to rely on.

I would say more about it, but I’m a bit, y’know…

Note: In Irish slang, the term “knacker” works in the same way as “pikey” or “tinker.” It’s a damning word for someone who is either a traveller or a gypsy, or otherwise considered to exist below conventional society. Be careful!

Which British phrase do you find bewildering? Tell us here:

Fraser McAlpine

Fraser McAlpine

Fraser is a British writer, broadcaster and the the author of the book Stuff Brits Like. He is Anglophenia's resident Brit blogger, having written BBC Radio 1's Chart Blog, the Top of the Pops website, and for NME, the Guardian and elsewhere. Favorite topics include slang, Doctor Who and cramming as much music into Anglophenia as he can manage. He invites you to join him on Twitter: @csi_popmusic
View all posts by Fraser McAlpine.