The origin of words

I often consider the origin of words. What their roots are, how they came to be, and most importantly, how they’ve evolved over time. I feel Latin and Greek stems particularly important to know, as it makes so many English words easier to learn.

A few weeks ago I submitted something to the student newspaper, a mildly humorous joke, and thought nothing more of it. That is until, someone wrote to the editor complaining of the use of the word ‘knacker’, and demanded that the editor apologise for publishing such a word that is derogatory to members of the travelling community. The editor wrote a formal apology.

Now this irked me slightly, and it’s still annoying me to be honest, so I really feel the need to get it off my chest.

Now obviously, I didn’t mean to slight any member of the travelling community. The phrase I had used (knacker drinking) refers to unsocial drinking undertaken by delinquent and often troublesome youths. I mean yes, knacker is also used as a pejorative word for the travelling community, but I believe it has evolved to mean the latter in everyday conversation.

Let’s take a look at the origin of this word:

  • Sifting through a few online dictionaries, it seems to originate from the Scandinavian word hnakkur, meaning saddle.
  • Around the 16th Century in England, it was used to describe a person who bought up horses for slaughter.
  • This led to the term ‘knackered’, meaning very tired (eg. fit for the knacker’s yard).
  • Now how in Ireland it came to be used to describe travellers, I can’t find any references for. I can only presume that many itinerants at the time worked as knackers (ie. low class job), which inevitably led to connotations of dirty, smelly workers.
  • In the past number of years, this has evolved again to mean “those from lower-class backgrounds who tend to engage in anti-social behaviour”. This would be related to the Scottish ‘ned’, the English ‘chav’ or the (Liverpool maybe? I’m not sure) scumbag.
  • This link is simple. There are some characters in the travelling community that could fit this ASBO-deserving model, and so any other person who fits the model was referred to as a knacker. Eventually the term shifted from a whole ethnic group to a select categorisation of individuals.

So which is more likely, that I was insulting a minority group and their drinking habits, or that I was referring to antisocial behaviour being carried out by antisocial people? I’ll let you decide.

Do I think the offended author was wrong in his decision or uneducated in the alternate meaning? No. I merely feel that he had cause to be offended with the term, and for him it immediately associated with the derogatory meaning. I would recommend that he consider my point of view though, before writing any knee-jerk letters to the editor.

To conclude, we’ve seen countless words undergo semantic change (Awful, Demagogue, Egregious, Guy, Gay, to name a few) and I fully believe knacker has undergone this shift as well. So instead of being offended at a word, embrace it, and force its connotations to evolve.

 

Here are some of my sources for this article:

 

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