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.

What does knee-jerk reaction mean?

From NYT article:

Another senior Socialist, who declined to be identified, said the party could not afford knee-jerk reactions.

share|improve this question
add comment

2 Answers

up vote 5 down vote accepted

A knee-jerk reaction indicates a reflexive response.

There are a couple of particular concerns with such responses:

  • They're spontaneous and generally involuntary
  • Haste being necessarily so, these can often be detrimental to a situation, with no forethought as to the consequences

These are benefits in nature (if falling, notice that arms automatically attempt break the fall, particularly protecting the head); when applied to speech and whatnot, such as in office, it isn't a recommended practice to work solely from 'instincts' (for example, if a suggestion strikes a nerve with one member, emotions may speak for him, as opposed to taking an objective standpoint.)

share|improve this answer
add comment

It's an expression/saying meaning:

An immediate unthinking emotional reaction produced by an event or statement to which the reacting person is highly sensitive;

It's origin is thus:

From the tendency of the knee to jerk involuntarily when hit sharply, properly called the patellar reflex. That was recorded by Sir Michael Foster in his Text-book of physiology, 1877:

"Striking the tendon below the patella gives rise to a sudden extension of the leg, known as the knee-jerk."

The term began to be used figuratively from the early 20th century onwards. O. O. McIntyre, in his New York Day-By-Day column in The Coshocton Tribune, October 1921, wrote this:

"Itinerant preacher stemming Broadway on a soap box. And gets only an occasional knee-jerk."


Reference:

http://www.phrases.org.uk/meanings/220600.html

share|improve this answer
1  
+1 for mentioning that it derives from the patellar reflex (video). –  psmears Jul 1 '11 at 14:01
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.