I saw an advertisement that claims over 20-percent of Americans wait until Tax Day, April 15th, to file their Federal and State Income Tax returns. That figure represents a lot of procrastinating people. I think about the panic taking place in the millions of households that have put off this onerous chore each year. That means today is the day most of those folks will finally knuckle down and take care of this obligation.
On the surface, to knuckle down, is one of those odd English language idioms that seems to make no sense. The word “knuckle” is used in many forms.
Of course, knuckles are the joints of the fingers when the fist is formed with the hand.
There are brass knuckles, the metal weapon worn over the fingers to supplement the knuckles during a fight.
In baseball, there is the knuckleball. This is a “slow” pitch in which the ball moves unpredictably and erratically. This is accomplished when the pitcher grips the ball with the tips of the fingers pressed against the top.
We have the insulting term, “knucklehead”. A knucklehead is a stupid person. Even though this insult isn’t used as often anymore, we still understand its meaning. It is usually used in frustrating situations, such as, “I’d like to get my hands on the knucklehead who designed that faulty can opener.”
A much more popular insult is “knuckle dragger”. This is a much stronger phrase directed at a person who is not only stupid, but is unrefined and crude. The mental picture is that of a lower ape such as a gorilla or chimpanzee that drags his knuckles along the ground as he walks or runs.
There is also the act of being knuckled, that is being pressed or rubbed with knuckles.
There is the term, “knuckle under”, which is to submit or surrender to someone or something. It might be used this way: “You have to knuckle under the dictator if you wish to stay alive.”
Finally we get around to knuckling down. That is getting serious or sincere about something, especially applying effort to work or a task. Sally is finally going to knuckle down and do her taxes.
How did this expression get its start? The most popular explanation is that it came from the game of marbles. The point of the game is to hit an opponent’s marble with your own. The most effective, accurate way to do that is to propel your marble along the ground with the movement of your thumb. In order to accomplish this move, you cup the hand, place the marble in the first joint of the index finger, then hold your knuckles against the ground, and flick the marble with the thumb.
So, are you going to knuckle down and do your taxes today? If they’re already finished, what will you knuckle down and finally do?
Or are you going to play a game of marbles?
The Blue Jay of Happiness quotes British journalist Toby Young. “Oddly, I do have a problem with authority. I find it very difficult to knuckle down and follow rules. Which are the classic symptoms of someone who has a troubled relationship with their father. And yet, I never had a problem with my father.”