Mind your language

Knee-jerkers vs knee-tremblers

An etymology lesson for Lord Ashdown

13 September 2014

9:00 AM

13 September 2014

9:00 AM

A little joke by Paddy, Lord Ashdown of Norton-sub-Hamdon, turned upon something to be shunned. Conservative ministers, he said, had ‘indulged in a spasm of knee-jerking which would have made even St Vitus feel concerned’. He has, I think, got his spasms in a twist.

Apart from saying ‘Aaah’, the cartoon task for a patient at the doctor’s is to cross a leg for it to be hit with a little hammer. ‘Striking the tendon below the patella gives rise to a sudden extension of the leg, known as the knee-jerk,’ wrote the physiologist Sir Michael Foster in 1890. He was a busy man, sitting on committees to rid Victorian England of evils linked to malaria, sewage, tuberculosis and the University of London. But he didn’t object to knee-jerks.


When Lord Ashdown spoke out, David Cameron, the Prime Minister, had already remarked, about the murder of James Foley, that it was ‘not a time for a knee-jerk reaction’. Lord Ashdown’s jerking, in St Vitus’s department, is of a different kind. ‘I have seen all denominations of religion exercised by the jerks,’ claimed Herbert Mayo, another physiologist, in a book in 1849 on popular superstitions. An example comes in a forgotten novel from 1872, Circuit Rider, by Edward Eggleston, an American former Methodist minister. In it, an old man complains of the ‘Methodis’ driving people ‘crazy with the jerks’. It is true that early Methodists experienced phenomena of enthusiasm: glossolalia, falling down and twitching of the limbs. This sort of thing is said to have happened in German-speaking lands to 17th-century devotees who, on his feast day, danced before the image of St Vitus, a blameless saint from Sicily, martyred about AD 303. He was not known to have favoured jerks, whatever Lord Ashdown thinks.

At least Lord Ashdown did not invoke the knee-trembler, a sordid piece of sexual fumbling. As for jerking, it was, in past centuries, used as word for ‘aiming satire’: ‘You must be jerking at the times,’ says a character in a comedy by the 17th-century dramatist William Cartwright, ‘the most eminent poet, orator and philosopher of his time’, as Anthony Wood called him. And who has heard of him now, Lord Ashdown?

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  • Sussexpintman

    “knee-trembler, a sordid piece of sexual fumbling”. Rather more
    than that if what I was told during my brief military career as a National Serviceman
    was correct. The nub of it appeared to be that it involved a compliant female leaning
    against the back wall of a pub to enable the licentious soldier to relieve
    fully his sexual frustration.

    I must emphasise that I gained this information across an
    indoor pub table and subsequently made certain that my future entries and exits
    of licensed premises were via the front door.

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