Knock off


What's the meaning of the phrase 'Knock off'?

To finish work for the day. Alternatively, to work quickly and complete a task – similar to polish off. A third alternative is a slang term meaning to steal.

What's the origin of the phrase 'Knock off'?

The origin of the first meaning could possibly be from the habit of knocking a special beat to indicate a change of oarsmen in slave galleys. That’s speculation but several of the earliest references to the term come from a nautical source; for example, William Clark Russell’s novel An ocean tragedy, 1890:

“We were forced to knock off through sheer fatigue.”

The second meaning – to work quickly and complete a task is known by the early 19th century; for example, Thomas Love Peacock’s novel Melincourt, 1817:

“He had to dispose of a christening, a marriage, and a funeral; but he would knock them off as fast as he could.”

The third, ‘stealing‘ meaning originated about a century later. That’s recorded in The Athenaeum, August 1919:

“A curious term used by a Tommy [British soldier] , in ‘explaining’ his deficiencies of kit, is ‘Someone knocked it off’ for ‘Someone pinched (or made away with) it’.”

Trend of knock off in printed material over time

Gary Martin is a writer and researcher on the origins of phrases and the creator of the Phrase Finder website. Over the past 26 years more than 700 million of his pages have been downloaded by readers. He is one of the most popular and trusted sources of information on phrases and idioms.

Gary Martin

Writer and researcher on the origins of phrases and the creator of the Phrase Finder website. Over the past 26 years more than 700 million of his pages have been downloaded by readers. He is one of the most popular and trusted sources of information on phrases and idioms.