Columns » Words

Words, May 20

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My interest was aroused when I heard rock star John Tarpley refer to members of his band as “knuckleheads,” and then came across this item in the newspaper:

“Reality arrived in the form of a 19-year-old who stood up and asked for help. Willie Jackson identified himself as a member of the hip-hop generation, which he said has been stereotyped as a collection of ‘knuckleheads' with sagging britches . . .”

Not having heard much about knuckleheads recently, I asked Tarpley if the word had acquired a new, specialized meaning among the young, hip-hoppy, saggy-britched crowd. He said no, he thought it merely suggested low intelligence, which is how it's always been used. Random House says that knucklehead is informal and refers to “a stupid, bumbling, inept person.”

So the original knucklehead is enjoying a revival of popularity for some reason. I find this notable because knucklehead was a favorite word of my mother, who was definitely not of the hip-hop generation. She applied the term freely, to her youngest offspring among others.

Knucklehead is not as old as I would have guessed. According to Random House, it first appeared in 1940-45, which is about the same time my mother's youngest offspring appeared. Coincidence?

Meathead, whose meaning is roughly the same as knucklehead, came along around then, too. “Head” insults seem to have been in vogue in the early '40s. Meathead gained fresh popularity in the 1970s because of its frequent use by Archie Bunker on the television show “All in the Family.” I wonder if somebody on TV or in the movies has been using knucklehead recently,
exposing a new generation to an old insult. Well, semi-old anyway. Too old for those low-riding pants.

Incidentally, I was once called “fistheaded” by a judge – in a letter, not in court, thankfully.


“Pope Benedict XVI makes his most strident statements yet about abuse scandals.”

His strongest statements, actually. You wouldn't consider them strident (“shrill, irritating”) unless you were one of the abusers.

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