I like to read the Economist to keep my English up to date. And today, reading the following news I came across the above mentioned expression.

Merriam Webster defines it as:

reacting in a readily predictable way

I'd like to know how come such words like knee and jerk could come up with such a definition.

  • 1
    Did you ever swing your leg off the end of a chair or table and then hit it just below the kneecap? – Jim Feb 5 '13 at 3:27
  • 1
    What @Jim said. Surely this is General Reference / common knowledge? – FumbleFingers Feb 5 '13 at 3:33
  • Seems General Reference from etymology dictionary. – Lynn Feb 5 '13 at 4:34
  • Yes, the reference from the etymology dictionary is self evident to anyone who understands "the figurative use appeared soon after the phrase was coined". But I suppose to "coin a phrase" is General Reference also! – Fortiter Feb 5 '13 at 6:48
  • Should I delete the question? or perhaps get it moved to ELL. – Androiderson Feb 5 '13 at 19:58

The phrase is metaphoric and is derived from the standard reflexive movement of the leg when the knee is struck in a certain way. Oxford defines it as

adjective - (of a response) automatic and unthinking: a knee-jerk reaction
(of a person) responding to situations in an automatic and unthinking way: knee-jerk radicals
noun - a sudden involuntary reflex kick caused by a blow on the tendon just below the knee.


A knee-jerk reaction is a reflex to an impact. If you have had a physical exam where the doctor checked your reflexes by tapping your knee cap with a little rubber hammer, then you've seen a true knee-jerk reaction.

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