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The meaning and origin of the expression: Near the knuckle

Near the knuckle

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What's the meaning of the phrase 'Near the knuckle'?

Just at the limit of acceptability, especially regarding sexual morals.

What's the origin of the phrase 'Near the knuckle'?

'Near the knuckle' originated in the variety hall performances of Victorian England.

Despite quite a research effort the reason why 'near the knuckle' was chosen to mean 'verging on indecent or unacceptable' we don't know. Why knuckle rather than elbow or wrist or cormorant? The person who coined it must have had something in mind, but we just don't know what.

This phrase came to mind after the recent (March, 2018) death of the British comedian Ken Dodd. I remember as a child being taken by my uncle to see him at a performance in Birmingham. My uncle later told my father "Doddy was good. Mind you some of his gags were a bit near the knuckle". I had no idea at the time what the phrase meant but it stuck in my mind. As it turns out it was a highly appropriate expression to use about Ken Dodd as some of his jokes were rather risqué and he has been hailed as the last of the old variety performers, and variety was where 'near the knuckle' originated.

Victorian England has many times been said to have had a public respectability which disguised seedy immorality conducted in secret. Public performances were strictly controlled by the Lord Chamberlain and any explicit reference to sex was verboten - a state that continued right into the 1950s. This was of course the ideal breeding ground for euphemism and innuendo. There were a host of female variety hall performers who sang apparently innocent songs the true meaning of which the audience could easily read between the lines. Vesta Tilley and Marie Lloyd got away with songs like "A little bit of what you fancy" and "Burlington Bertie". They sound innocent enough but the true meaning wasn't lost on the audience.

Near the knuckleEnter Nellie L'Estrange. She was one of the troupe of artistes who toured the variety hall and advertised in the theatrical magazine The Era. In August 1887 she published an advert suggesting that she had a play called "A Bit Too Near the Knuckle" in preparation.

There are numerous uses of the expression in English newspapers from the mid-1880s onward. There was then a thriving business in newspaper columns which allowed contributors to carry on of call and response conversions with other readers - not unlike the social media babble of today, and just as perplexing. These were printed on in a variety of down-market publications and were often strings of nudge-nudge, wink-wink street slang. 'Near the knuckle' was a commonplace expression used there, well before it began to be used by the wider public.

An early example comes from The Sporting Times, December 1886:

The Infant. - The poem is very popular, in private; it is a trifle too near the knuckle.

This is the earliest uses of 'near the knuckle' that I have found. Sadly, what I haven't been able to find is the text of the poem mentioned or any record of Nellie L'Estrange's play. Perhaps they really were a little too near the knuckle to put into print.

Gary Martin - the author of the website.

By Gary Martin

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.

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