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 is the origin of the expression "trying to catch a falling knife"? I have just read it and I wonder how it came up to be a common expression.

share|improve this question
    
"I have just read it" ... riiiight. You watched "Person of Interest". Admit it. –  David Schwartz Feb 29 '12 at 11:18

2 Answers 2

I'm not sure how common it is. (Sorry to profess ignorance, but I don't recall hearing it before).

When I Googled the phrase, I noticed almost all the links revolved around investing or finances. (Ah! No wonder a poor man like me hasn't heard it before...)

I thought this website explained it very well:

A falling knife security can rebound, or it can lose all of its value. As the phrase suggests, buying into a market with a lot of downward momentum can be quite dangerous. If timed perfectly, a buy at the bottom of a long downtrend can be rewarding - both financially and emotionally - but the risks run extremely high.

This site listed several investing cliches, including the falling knife expression, where it said:

"Never try and catch a falling knife. Wait for it to hit the ground then pick it up. The same applies to falling stocks."

A falling knife can land handle-side down (in which case it bounces), or blade-side down (in which case it sticks into the ground). If you're trying to catch the knife, and you catch the wrong end, you get hurt. Seems to be an apt metaphor.

The cliche is apparently well-used in investing circles. There's even a book with that title .

That said, I have no idea if its origins can be traced. It might just be one of those things that got uttered in the pit, and stuck.

share|improve this answer
    
Several sources on Google books claim a Scottish origin for: "Never catch at a falling knife or a falling friend." I can't see when it was first applied to stock trading, but as you explained, the metaphor is obvious. –  z7sg Ѫ Feb 29 '12 at 12:59
    
AmE speaker here. I never heard this phrase either, but the image it evokes is pretty plain and obvious. –  horatio Feb 29 '12 at 15:19
    
@z7sgѪ: I don't get the part about a falling friend. Sounds pretty callous. –  Mitch Feb 29 '12 at 15:23
    
@Mitch: I get the part about the falling friend. It's merely saying that trying to catch either one can get you hurt. I think it's supposed to be a wry way of saying, "Catching a falling friend can get you hurt - much like catching a falling knife." Not that you should never do it (even though it says "never," I think that's more tongue-in-cheek than callous). –  J.R. Feb 29 '12 at 15:32

The metaphoric usage shot to prominence in financial circles in the late 80s - here's a typical citation from the financial periodical The Bulletin, 1987

The line of the week among Manhattan traders seemed to say it all: "It was like trying to catch a falling knife."

Prior to that, virtually every occurrence is simply literal advice to cooks, etc. One exception I did come across was in Sir Harry Hamilton Johnston's novel The Gay Dombeys (1919)

What's that saying? 'Never catch a falling knife or save a falling friend!'

...but I don't think one should necessarily assume this means there ever was such a saying - it's probably just Johnston exercising artistic license.

share|improve this answer
    
There are quite a few references to the proverb in google books, e.g. books.google.co.uk/… –  z7sg Ѫ Mar 1 '12 at 23:38
    
@z7sg: Okay - but discounting the duplicates, "quite a few" is either 3 or 4, a couple around 1863, and a couple more a decade later. I still have my doubts that it ever was actually an "old Scottish saying" in any meaningful sense. Imho more likely something made up by someone in the "London Literati" of the day, that made it to the other side of the Atlantic a few years later. –  FumbleFingers Mar 2 '12 at 1:38

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.