Take the 2-minute tour ×
English Language & Usage Stack Exchange is a question and answer site for linguists, etymologists, and serious English language enthusiasts. It's 100% free, no registration required.

I'm reading some Sherlock Holmes stories (don't judge - it's good vacation reading) and Conan Doyle has Holmes saying things like "Sorry to knock you up, Watson..." which I'm finding very... odd. From the context I'm gathering that it means "wake up," but my head immediately goes to the modern American meaning of "impregnate."

Is "knock up" ever used with this meaning anymore? And if not, did it disappear around the time that the pregnancy meaning became common, or did it vanish on its own?

share|improve this question
22  
Don't ever apologize for reading Sherlock Holmes. –  JSBձոգչ Mar 30 '11 at 0:57
    
If you offered to knock someone up (as Sherlock meant), you'd have a 50/50 chance of being understood depending on your audience, but you should expect a smirk in either case ;) –  gpr Mar 30 '11 at 1:06
6  
Be glad he didn't ejaculate. –  Sam Mar 30 '11 at 5:58
2  
@Sam: ‘They had proceeded thus gropingly two or three miles further when on a sudden Clare became conscious of some vast erection close in his front, rising sheer from the grass. They had almost struck themselves against it. "What monstrous place is this?" said Angel.’ –  PLL Mar 30 '11 at 18:21
2  
This reminds me of a British friend of a friend who, while visiting said American friend, leaned across the bar and asked in a voice which carried to virtually everyone present "do you mind if I pinch a fag?" He got his cigarette, and a lot of funny looks. –  PSU Mar 31 '11 at 20:51
show 3 more comments

6 Answers

up vote 12 down vote accepted

The Google n-grams viewer suggests that the “impregnate” sense became dominant in the US around the 1940’s, but that in British English, other meanings were more common until at least the 1990’s.

This is based on comparing the relative frequencies of knocked her up vs. knocked him up. It seems reasonable to conclude that when the “impregnate” meaning becomes dominant, knocked her up should become much more frequent than knocked him up. The results for this in the “American English” corpus show this shift happening between the ’30s and ’60s, since which time knocked him up has been much less common:

“knocked him up” vs. “knocked her up”, American English, 1800–2000

(The predominance of knocked him up in earlier years presumably just due to the preponderance of male characters in general.) As one would expect, the British English corpus shows a very different pattern, with no such notable switch:

“knocked him up” vs. “knocked her up”, American English, 1800–2000

It looks like knocked her up may have been becoming predominant in British English in the ’90s, but this is such a small interval of the data that I’m not sure how much significance one can attach to it.

share|improve this answer
4  
+1 for "him up" vs. "her up." I was using n-grams for my previous comments, but hadn't thought of wording it like this. It makes all the difference--especially in illustrating the shift in the American corpus. Nice work, and nice comparison. –  Callithumpian Mar 30 '11 at 17:52
2  
Excellent sleuthing, @PLL. I never would have thought to disambiguate meanings as you did. –  Uticensis Mar 30 '11 at 22:33
1  
At least in the north of England there used to knocker-ups, who would go around houses knocking on windows to wake people up for early factory shifts. –  mgb Jun 29 '12 at 13:44
add comment

This is a difference between American and British English. In England if you knock someone up you get them out of bed. In America you usually have to get them into bed to knock them up (unless you're both in high school, in which case you will have to tilt the seat back in your parents' car). And by "them" I mean women only, because it's still the case that only women can get pregnant. But you can knock up anybody you want in Britain — how awesome is that?

share|improve this answer
2  
Like many originally American expressions, it is understood here, probably because encountered in American films and TV; and I wouldn't be surprised if some people are using it. I don't think it's common. –  Colin Fine Mar 30 '11 at 10:51
5  
There is an additional specialised meaning in UK political circles. "Knocking up" is the process of getting the supporters you have identified in the previous weeks of campaigning to actually go to the polling station and vote. It derives from the "knocking on doors" meaning but has extended beyond that. "Telephone knock-ups" are increasingly common, for example. –  user1579 Mar 30 '11 at 13:38
1  
@Rhodri: Are any of these other meanings still used, or understood: to build, to cook, to tire, to score (in cricket)? –  Callithumpian Mar 30 '11 at 14:15
3  
@Callithumpian: "to score (in cricket)," definitely. The others, less so: I see "knock up" in the sense of "create" fairly often, but would normally use "knock together" or "knock out" myself. The sense of "to tire" is a new one on me, but probably related to "knock out" as "render unconscious". –  user1579 Mar 30 '11 at 14:29
1  
As an American, I didn't understand this answer at all, but I do agree wholeheatedly with the last sentence, so +1. :-) –  T.E.D. Jun 14 '13 at 19:38
show 2 more comments

Knock up is 1660s in sense of "arouse by knocking at the door;" however it is little used in this sense in Amer.Eng., where the phrase means "get a woman pregnant" (1813)....

Online Etymology Dictionary

So I guess it's a safe bet that, by the early-mid-1800s, knock up lacked the "wake up" meaning in the States. Google Books and the BYU corpora are your friends, though, if you want to look for specific dates of usage.

Update: Another answer, q.v., has examined Google Books, with the result that my guessed safe bet was a bad guess after all.

share|improve this answer
1  
Is it really safe to assume the “wake up” meaning was lost in AmE that early, just because the “impregnate” meaning had appeared by then? Often multiple meanings can persist in parallel for a long time, especially since there’s been much geographical variation within AmE at times. –  PLL Mar 30 '11 at 2:21
    
It had appeared by 1813. I'm no etymologist, but I guess it's a safe bet that the "wake up" meaning was gone by 1840ish. Just a guess, though. Like I said, citations will prove it one way or the other. –  msh210 Mar 30 '11 at 3:30
    
Can't believe I hadn't connected "knock up" = "knocking on a door + wake up." –  J.T. Grimes Mar 30 '11 at 3:51
2  
@msh: Using Google Books, I found knock up as "to wake up" or "to tire out, use up" as predominate all the way up to at least the late 1950s. –  Callithumpian Mar 30 '11 at 4:15
1  
Given that British English happily accomodates multiple meanings including "impregnate", "rouse", "improvise", etc., why should Americans be likely to "lose" earlier meanings when new ones come along? It's not like there'd normally be any doubt about which sense was intended. –  FumbleFingers May 2 '11 at 2:15
show 3 more comments

Used in the "wake up" sense in New Zealand until the 1970s. Knocker upper was a profession in Victorian England before alarm clocks. See Dickens' Hindle Wakes. Another example of TV pollution of the language by "yanks" — like stick shift for "gear lever" and SUV for "4×4".

share|improve this answer
4  
I think 4x4 was originally a US term. And you can't really blame Americans for speaking like Americans, you should be blaming the local TV channels for showing American programmes! –  Hugo Jun 29 '12 at 15:11
1  
4x4 implied four-wheel drive, which is no longer ubiquitous in SUVs. –  Andrew Lazarus Jan 29 '13 at 16:43
    
Backing up @AndrewLazarus ... 4x4 literally means your vehicle has four wheel drive. Some cars have that, as well as some pick-up trucks. An SUV is a motor vehicle built on a truck base that is not a pickup due to the entire storage area being enclosed and accessible from the inside, and is not a van. An SUV does not have to have four-wheel-drive, and many don't. I have trouble believing the UK uses "4x4" to desginate vehicles that don't actually have four-wheel-drive. If they do, I submit that it is they who have "polluted the language" in this particular case. –  T.E.D. Jun 14 '13 at 19:50
add comment

I'm British. We used the term knocked up frequently when I was growing up in the 70's and 80's to mean a girl who had gotten pregnant. I am told that it is derived from the term prima nocta, a medieval lord's right to bed his serf's virgin daughters, but this may be apocryphal. The older generation used the term to mean wake someone up; don't know when the meaning switched but even when we were watching comedy shows in the 70's, e.g., Are You Being Served, this was one of the funny nudge nudge wink wink lines.

share|improve this answer
add comment

I heard a Scottish friend of ours ask someone if they could "knock up some brownies" the other day. Of course, she wanted them to bake a batch of brownies, but ... I'm in Canada, and everyone else (including me) started giggling like schoolchildren, and the expression on her face when she figured out what she'd just said was priceless.

So, this was a rather long-winded way of saying that I think it doesn't actually mean pregnant in the UK, or at least, that's a less common meaning than the other ones.

share|improve this answer
1  
For those who don't know and thus might not fully get this post, brownies are the 7-10 year old version of the Girl Scouts. –  T.E.D. Jun 14 '13 at 19:43
add comment

Your Answer

 
discard

By posting your answer, you agree to the privacy policy and terms of service.

Not the answer you're looking for? Browse other questions tagged or ask your own question.