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What does please with sugar and knobs on mean in the following sentence?

Please, pretty please, pretty please with sugar and knobs on, do not ever look at your monthly/quarterly/annual statements; they only serve to confuse you.

Specifically, what do sugar and knob refer to?

This comes from a comment on Money SE.

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He called "please" pretty instead. –  Tim Jun 3 '12 at 20:09
    
@Tim: Since you have an account at Money SE, could you ask Dilip about this phrase in a comment and point him to this discussion? Maybe he could tell us what he meant and whether or not he made up this phrase or has heard it used before. –  Callithumpian Jun 4 '12 at 2:23
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As Rory Alsop and FumbleFingers said, the "knobs" in this case has nothing to do with food, and everything to do with embellishment. (In fact, my first thought was knobs = buttons, as in big, red, and shiny, just begging to be pressed. Let's just say, my not-quite-2-year-old niece is not the only person who is enamored of all things button-like.) –  Marthaª Jun 4 '12 at 18:27
    
@Callithumpian: Your and J.R.'s requests have made the author come here and leave an explanation. –  Tim Jun 5 '12 at 14:22
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5 Answers

up vote 6 down vote accepted

It's three different "intensifiers" used together, effectively "Please please please please!"

Pretty as in that was pretty stupid is quite common in the slightly childish/winsome/wheedling entreaty Pretty please?.

With [brass] knobs on is a well-established intensifier (cf with bells on). I've not come across with sugar used in this way, and certainly the conjunction of all three isn't what I'd call a standard idiom, but in context the meaning is obvious.

EDIT: Note that "The same to you with [brass] knobs on!" is (rather dated) British slang, which explains why many people aren't familiar with it. Outside of that specific retort, with knobs on was never particularly common, so for any one under 50 (or not British) I've obviously overstated the case by saying it's a "well-established intensifier". Nevertheless, it is just an intensifier, with no other connection to "pretty" and "with sugar on".

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Thanks,but I don't understand why adding a knob or bell makes a thing extreme. I can feel the emphasis, but not from the metaphor by sugar and knob on –  Tim Jun 3 '12 at 20:07
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@Tim: They're just slangy metaphoric idiomatic usages. With sugar because sugar is a desirable extra "sweetener bribe" added to the entreaty. And with knobs on meaning with adornments - again, simply providing emphasis. They're idiomatic usages, so it's not really important to understand why they have this sense - the fact is that native speakers are normally familiar with both anyway, because they're used this way in other contexts (not so much with sugar, maybe, but it's just more of the same in this particular case, so the meaning is clear). –  FumbleFingers Jun 3 '12 at 20:19
    
Given the new information, I concede part of this argument to you and reverse my downvote of your answer. I would like to point out, however, that this was in fact an accidental combination (and abbreviation) of two very distinct phrases. –  Callithumpian Jun 5 '12 at 16:10
    
@Callithumpian: ty. I hadn't realised how common "pretty please with sugar on" is in America, meaning those two are effectively a "set phrase". So you're right that it's better described as a combination of two expressions, not three. All three elements are just intensifiers, but Americans are already used to hearing two of them paired up in a "Please, please, please" construction. –  FumbleFingers Jun 5 '12 at 17:18
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"With sugar on," indicates you are offering something desirable or valuable as an incentive.

"With knobs on," comes from 1920's slang, and meant that something was embellished, for example an iron bedstead with knobs on becomes that bit more special.

The two phrases together are just meant to accentuate the request, as is the repetition of "pretty," - the request becomes special, different, more important.

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Thanks! (1) You mean "you are offering" or "you are offered"? (2) I still don't get the metaphore. How do sugar and knobs accentuate the request? –  Tim Jun 3 '12 at 19:34
    
In this instance, the person asking you not to look at your statements is trying to emphasise that fact, and then emphasise even more. –  Rory Alsop Jun 3 '12 at 19:34
    
I still don't get the metaphore. How do sugar and knobs accentuate the request? –  Tim Jun 3 '12 at 19:36
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@Tim: The sugar and knobs don't directly relate to the request - they're (to a greater or lesser extent) established idiomatic intensifiers in other contexts, and the preceding well-established intensifier pretty please clearly signals what role those additions play, even to people who've not heard them used in precisely this context before. –  FumbleFingers Jun 3 '12 at 19:46
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@choster: I'm not sure I'd call it a "mixed metaphor" as such. But it does seem that people who don't know "with knobs on" are inclined to assume this somehow relates to "with sugar", and must therefore be an allusion to scrumptious food. That's to say they're looking for a coherent metaphoric link between the three intensifiers, when in fact they're just three unrelated idiomatic ways of conveying emphatic pleading. –  FumbleFingers Jun 4 '12 at 14:20
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As the one who perpetrated the phrase that has created such vigorous discussion, let me begin by saying that although I have spoken English for most of my life (even attended and matriculated (O level GCE from Cambridge) from what is called an English-medium school in India), I am not a native speaker of English, and the language that I speak and write is a mishmash of American and British English with a few phrases from Indglish thrown in.

@callithumpian's suggestion "...the original comment was an accidental mash-up of these two..." is dead on target: I mashed up two intensifiers, perhaps accidentally, but more likely because of a failure to do a final proof-reading after editing my comment to fit the length constraint imposed by stackexchange (I deleted a lot of extraneous stuff). The "Please, pretty please, with sugar" and the elided "on top" is from my life in the US and I learned to use it while wheedling my children and grandchildren and their friends. The "knobs on" part is definitely from my reading during my schooldays (fifty years ago!) which was almost exclusively of British authors with the exception of Mark Twain. I might be remembering the phrase from a P. G. Wodehouse novel or story or even from a Billy Bunter story. I have always understood "with knobs on" as meaning embellishment or adornment and not as referring to knobs (or gobs) of butter. I wanted to make my plea to OP Tim to ignore certain pieces of paper more emphatic, and mixed up two phrases in my hurry to do so: knobs on certainly does not seem applicable to sugar -- on top or elsewhere.

I think it is the first time that something I have written has led to a top-ranked hit on Google. Oh, that any of my intentional writings were so fortunate!

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+1. Welcome, Dilip! –  Tim Jun 5 '12 at 13:19
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Thanks for taking the time to write. Your expression made a lot of us scratch our heads and speculate (starting with the O.P.), and led to a most interesting discussion. As for me, I learned about knobs of butter, and the knobs on idiom, so that's a net +2 for me. –  J.R. Jun 5 '12 at 14:52
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See also "Pretty please with sugar on top" .

As you know please is a modifier for making a request polite, and by implication making it more likely to be fulfilled. A child, for example, might take this "magic" quality of please and try to dress up the phrase. Pretty please indicates more urgent pleading. Pretty please with cherries on top is rather abject. Anything desirable "topping" could be suggested here, as one would add to ice cream or pancakes and the like: sugar, syrup, or in this case knobs probably meaning a knob of butter.

"Knobs" is not a common measurement in American English; usually it is a vulgarism for breasts or nipples.

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knobs in this context were not anything to do with food - see my edit to my answer. And it definitely isn't used in Britain to mean breasts or nipples - it is used to mean penis, as Clark commented. –  Rory Alsop Jun 3 '12 at 19:40
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@Rory Alsop: Not at all - knobs here means with adornments, with all the trimmings, augmented, amplified. Nothing to do with food or genitalia. –  FumbleFingers Jun 3 '12 at 20:22
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@FumbleFingers - I know that. See my answer - nothing to do with food or genitalia. I must be having a bad English day - that's me being misunderstood by you and choster... ah well. –  Rory Alsop Jun 3 '12 at 21:52
    
@Rory Alsop: oic. Me too. I see what you meant now. Knob is indeed UK slang (esp., childish) for penis - but not in this particular case, as your answer indicates. –  FumbleFingers Jun 4 '12 at 12:51
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I've heard pretty please with sugar on top since I was a youngster. It's is a fairly common (and somewhat childish) way of pleading with someone:

enter image description here

I've never heard the "with sugar and knobs" variation, not until today. Based on a quick Google search, though, it appears to be nothing more than a simple variant on the "sweet topping" motif; knobs apparently refers to gobs of butter:

enter image description here

How much butter is in a knob of butter? That's a question for a different StackExchange.

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Finally, an answer that seems to make sense. –  JLG Jun 4 '12 at 1:30
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Didn't I essentially say same thing? Apparently RoryAlsop is not the only one having trouble getting understood today. –  choster Jun 4 '12 at 3:25
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@choster: You did. Not sure why you got downvotes. Maybe you should throw in some sexy screenshots. –  Callithumpian Jun 4 '12 at 3:59
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@FumbleFingers: The screenshot comment was a joke, of course. With sugar on top is as familiar to some of us as with knobs on is to you. Either the original comment was an accidental mash-up of these two or the knobs do in fact refer to something else yummy piled on top of the please. I'm open to the possibility that you're right, but given the lack of corroboration here, I think you should be open to the possibility that you're wrong. J.R. has kindly asked the comment's OP what he thinks he meant, so we may soon get to the bottom of it. –  Callithumpian Jun 4 '12 at 16:25
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@Fumble, I may have an inferior American education ;^) but I've reviewed every reference to "knobs" you've provided, and none of them seem to fit into the context of "pretty please with sugar and knobs." Had the quote been "pretty please with trinkets and knobs" or "pretty please with bells and knobs" or "pretty please with polish and knobs" or "pretty please with bedknobs and broomsticks" I would have zealously upvoted your answer and kept my nob shut. But "pretty please with sugar and knobs" makes it seem at least an eggcorn, as you said. Anyway, it's been an enjoyable question & discussion. –  J.R. Jun 4 '12 at 19:42
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