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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:
See more posts by Fraser McAlpine
Fraser has been writing and broadcasting about music and popular culture for over 15 years, first at the Top of the Pops website, and most recently for the NME, Guardian and MSN. He also wrote BBC Radio 1's Chart Blog and reviews albums for BBC Radio 2.
He is Anglophenia's current resident Brit, blogging about British slang and running around the Mall taking snaps of the crowd at the Royal Wedding, as well as reigniting a childhood passion for classic Doctor Who and cramming as much music in as he can manage.
Fraser invites you to join him on Twitter: @csi_popmusic