I know that I’ve had people tell me to “knuckle down.” I’ve usually been told this in a group, such as a classroom. Usually I’ve heard, “we really have to knuckle down.” It was common to hear this in my Technical Theater class in college because in that class, we helped to make the sets for the shows that the theater department held each semester. Sometimes, we ran behind schedule, so it was important to “knuckle down” during our class time so we would get things done.
I had always thought that “knuckle down” referred to working hard so the knuckles would touch the surface. I related the phrase to “working your knuckles to the bone.”
A BBC program about antiques said that the phrase “knuckle down” originated from the game of marbles. However, many times, the origins of phrases on such programs have to be taken with a grain of salt. It is common that they will repeat rumors and folklore that aren’t true.
However, in this case, the story did turn out to be true.
“A particular phrase used by lads at a play called taw, wherein they frequently say, Knuckle down to your taw, or fit your hand exactly in the place where your marble lies,” was written by Thomas Dyche and William Pardon in 1740 in their work called A dictionary of all the words commonly us’d in the English tongue.
A taw is a marble. Afficiandos of the game of marbles don’t call the shooting marble a marble, but rather a taw.
However, Dyche and Pardon didn’t only write about the phrase “knuckle down” as relating to marbles. They also included “Knuckle or knuckle down: to stoop, bend, yield, comply with, or submit to” as a definition.
These second meanings of “knuckle down” faded out of use. However, “knuckle under” did come to mean “submit to.”
By 1864, “To apply oneself earnestly or vigorously” was the definition that Webster’s dictionary was giving for “knuckle down.”
Today, Merriam Webster has removed the words “or vigorously” from the definition, but it is otherwise the same. The date for the definition is also from 1864.
knuckle down. (2010). In Merriam-Webster Online Dictionary. Retrieved July 21, 2010, from http://www.merriam-webster.com/dictionary/knuckle down
Martin, G. (n.d.). Knuckle down. The meanings and origins of sayings and phrases | List of sayings | English sayings | Idiom definitions | Idiom examples | Idiom origins | List of idioms | Idiom dictionary | Meaning of idioms. Retrieved July 21, 2010, from http://www.phrases.org.uk/meanings/knuckle-down.html