Wednesday, June 06, 2007


Today I was going to teach my students This Old Man. However, I had to change that plan suddenly. Purely by coincidence, yesterday I looked up knick-knack in my dictionary during class. A student wanted a word, and I thought that was the nearest to what he meant. I entered it in my electronic dictionary so he could check, went to show it to him, and suddenly pulled it back before he could see it, gasping with shock.

What on EARTH were they thinking when they wrote that dictionary? Where do they get their misinformation? The English-Japanese dictionary I use (which is supposed to be a good one) gives knick-knack a VERY rude meaning as well as the usual one. It was so rude I didn't dare show the student. I told him I had the wrong word and gave him a different one, far less suitable.

I realized then that I would have to think of a new lesson plan for today. I could imagine my students singing:

With a knick-knack paddy-whack
Give the dog a bone
This old man came rolling home!

And then some bright spark would to know what it meant, look up knick knack, and get a nasty surprise, the sort that could get me into trouble. People BELIEVE dictionaries. They don't believe lowly English teachers. I can't imagine trying to explain that this word is NOT extremely uncouth slang for an unlikely variety of both male and female bodily parts.

(Unless I'm wrong, of course. Have any of my readers heard it used that way? Is it new? Have I been in Japan too long?)

In the end, instead of teaching This Old Man I settled on teaching them to play Simon Says, which I figured was a fun way to teach a few new vocabulary items as well as giving the students a game they can use when they become kindergarten teachers. I included the usual things, adapted for seated players (it is not easy to stand suddenly with the seating arrangements in that room), and to amuse myself I included,

"Simon says rub your head!"

The students loved the game, and got good at it very quickly. Also, they use a lot of hair gel and other gunk on their heads, so after they'd rubbed their heads multiple times the resulting funny hairstyles stuck quite nicely. They didn't notice because they were watching me so closely and the game was going so fast.

At the end of class I shouted,

"Simon says wave goodbye and fix your hair!"

They waved uncertainly and turned to stare at each other. Then there was a riot of pointing and laughing, and class finished with a mad scramble for mirrors and combs.

I'm still pretty annoyed about knick-knack, but I have to admit the hair thing cheered me up quite a lot, especially when it worked in two classes running.


Anonymous said...

Sorry BadAunt, but the old man = yep, male organ, and indeed the dog (female part) does get the bone (male part) - thus "rolling home" = an orgasm. Our ruder ancestors, Shakespeare & Chris Marlowe's lot, knew what knick knack means, just as your excellent little dic(tionary) does.

When John Dowland sings "to die with you again" he wasn't thinking of death I'm afraid... :-)

Miz UV said...

I've always suspected there was something sexual about that song. Hee!

Carrie said...

Oh my! I've never heard knick-knack used in any uncouth way, but your anonymous commenter just blew that song out of the water for me.

I love reading all your teaching stories. I hope your clueless student gets a clue soon, but it seems unlikely.

Lia said...

I'm with Carrie, in every particular. I've never heard knick knack used to mean anything more sinister than mantel decorations.

Badaunt said...

Anon: Are you sure? I wondered, and did a lot of Googling, but couldn't find anything like that. I found this, where it says:

"When knick-knack was first used it meant 'a petty trick or subtefuge'. John Fletcher, used it that was in his work The loyall subject, 1618:

"If you use these knick-knacks, This fast and loose. "

By 1682, that meaning had died out though and a translation of Nicolas Boileau-Despréaux's Le Lutrin was using the term with the meaning we currently have for it, i.e. small trincket: "

According to that page, Shakespeare didn't use it - he used 'knack,' with a similar meaning. I can't find anything that suggests it ever had a ruder meaning, and most hits I got about the song seem to agree that it was most likely about a rag-and-bone man.

I could be missing something, though...

But also, even if there is a ruder, obsolete meaning, the dictionary should have pointed out that the rude meaning is so obsolete that native speakers haven't even heard of it and the word is safe to use.

Anonymous said...

BadAunt: one of the good sources of 'low terms' is the compendium Cony-Catchers & Bawdy Baskets, contenporaries like Awdeley and Robert Greene looking at Elizabethan low life. And then there's Dowland again:

Fine knacks for ladies, trinkets great & small
A pennyworth, that money cannot buy
I keep the fair, but for the fair to view
A begger can be liberal of love...

Wonderful use of extended metaphor! (Ayres for 4 Voices, 159-)...

potentilla said...

I did a lot of Googling, also with the result that absolutely nothing rude turned up (although a lot of contradictory speculation about the source, age and meaning of the song).

The nearest I can can get to rude is "knackers" which is rude in British English, although not very. Was the rude meaning in your dictionary too rude to post? Also, a, I right in thinking that you were looking up an English word in a Japanese-English dictionary, and that therefore the rude bit was in Japanese, and if so is there any chance that the Japanese has more than one meaning?

I think it's fairly clear that "knick-knacks" is not rude in modern English, anyhow.

Anonymous said...

Ah yes, potentilla, "Kick him in the knackers" was a common cry from spectators of schoolyard fights in my childhood. (It's gone now though I think.) And then the "I'm knackered", tired from too much knick-knacking.

And I wonder (though too lazy to look it up): the knacker, the man who boils down dead animals for glue etc, could the connection there be parallel to the f word used in the sense of wrecked or ruined? BadAunt? what do you think...?

But yes, knick-knacks are harmless today. But then, so is "die"...