From The Tommyknockers by Stephen King:

Late last night and the night before, Tommyknockers, Tommyknockers, knocking at the door. I want to run, don't know if I can, 'cause I'm so afraid of the Tommyknocker man.

But aside from the slang meaning of knocker(breast), the knocker is really a creature related to mining lore (NED, Century, as follows):

The Knocker, Knacker, Bwca (Welsh), Bucca (Cornish) or Tommyknocker (US) is a mythical creature in Welsh, Cornish and Devon folklore.

[ Wikipedia article ]

-2. A spirit or goblin supposed to dwell in mines, and to indicate the presence of rich veins of ore by knocking.

The miners say the Knocker is some being that inhabits in the concaves and hollows of the Earth, and that it is thus kind to some men of suitable temper, and directs them to the ore by such this knocking.

Hooson, quoted by R. Hunt in British Mining.

[ The Century Dictionary Online ]

But accounts may vary... The French version of the article discloses that the German Meister Hämmerlinge (maître marteleur) is also a Knocker. And King's Tommyknockers will tell you where to dig, yet their motives may be questionable.

Why is the word prefixed with "tommy" in AmE, where does it come from? Does it mean something different? The word tommy refers either to Thomas Atkins1, or to a diminutive of the name Thomas, a ration, or is related to the truck system i.e. the tommy would be the wager paid in goods instead of money. How is that related, if at all, to the knocker?

1. From the entry: [...] a familiar name for the typical private soldier in the British Army; arising out of the casual use of this name in the specimen forms given in the official regulations from 1815 onward. [...] Now more popularly Tommy Atkins or Tommy [...]. From wikipedia on the name Thomas: based on the Biblical Greek Θωμᾶς, which is itself a transcription of the Aramaic te'oma תאומא "twin", the Hebrew cognate being tə'ōm תאום.(Reference to citation being required, omitted.)

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    It's a mythical creature that Stephen King more or less pulled out of thin air (or somewhere else relatively airless). It doesn't have to refer to anything -- probably he was more interested in the sound of it than the constituent words. However, there are claims that it is a term from old mining lore. (I recall similar stories about mine "knockers", only they were called "johnny knockers" -- I'm guessing the specific name attached is not that important.)
    – Hot Licks
    Feb 1, 2015 at 1:53
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    Don't obsess over votes, up or down.
    – Hot Licks
    Feb 1, 2015 at 18:52
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    It's hard to tell for sure, but the Salt Lake Mining Review reference appears to be using "tommyknocker" to refer to some sort of a hand-held "rock pick" hammer. But that gives not a single clue as to where "tommy" came from.
    – Hot Licks
    Feb 1, 2015 at 18:59
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    It's a minor distinguishing element between two different oral traditions. You might see the same variation between miners in Cheshire vs Nottinghamshire. Has nothing really to do with English.
    – Hot Licks
    Feb 2, 2015 at 17:05
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    I'm voting to close this question as off-topic because it's a minor distinguishing element between two different oral traditions. You might see the same variation between miners in Cheshire vs Nottinghamshire. Has nothing really to do with English per @hot licks Mar 3, 2015 at 0:02

4 Answers 4


This is only an assumption, but after doing a bit of research I have come up with the following notations and now believe the "Tommy" in TommyKnockers is a carry over of these references of a "Tommy" being a British person (soldier) in as much as the legend of them correlates in the U.S. mining communities about the same time frame and the high possibility that some of the miners were veterans of WWI. I found it on Wikipedia under the slang term Digger...

"While the Australians and New Zealanders would call each other "Digger", the British tended to call the New Zealanders "Kiwis" and Australians "Diggers". ***

The equivalent slang for a British soldier was "Tommy"

*** from Tommy Atkins then following thru and reviewing Tommy Atkins also on Wiki page...

"Tommy Atkins (often just Tommy) is slang for a common soldier in the British Army. It was already well established in the 19th century, but is particularly associated with World War I. It can be used as a term of reference, or as a form of address. German soldiers would call out to "Tommy" across no man's land if they wished to speak to a British soldier. French and Commonwealth troops would also call British soldiers "Tommies".

So in correlation to the legend of "Knockers" coming to the U.S. by way of Cornish immigrant miners, American miners most likely called the "Knocker's Tommies" meaning that they were British.


Grew up in the coal mining region of W. PA. It was thought the Tommy part came simply from ascribing a generic name to who was doing the knocking. What's that knocking? Oh, just Tommy. Made it easier to lessen fear. The knocks themselves some miners thought were from seams shifting differently if a desired vein could be found there. / Gene Stewart


The only reference I could find so far refers to Tommy as a nickname of a miner:

Origin of Tommy-Knockern (M-W)

  • probably from Tommy (nickname for Thomas) + knocker; from his being supposed to be responsible for the creaking of timbers in the mine.
  • Thanks! On the talk page of the wikipedia article, there is mention that Mr King would have said that the Webster Unabridged carried it. I noted the Webster online is partially behind a paywall. There is a hyphen here. Generally what does it mean in English when you have such a form as opposed to a form which is fully compounded?
    – user98955
    Feb 1, 2015 at 3:56
  • The hyphen "means" very little. For terms such as TommyKnocker it's mostly a matter of style.
    – Hot Licks
    Feb 1, 2015 at 4:31
  • Usually a hyphen indicates a relatively recent coinage, especially a new coinage, compounding two common words; lack of a hyphen is thought to indicate domestication of the compound coinage. That, however, is purely a matter of style and not a generally accepted rule. Feb 25, 2015 at 18:44

TommyKnockers are an American Urban Legend about the ghosts of miners knocking on the walls of a mine right before a cave in to warn the living miners to get out of the mine. Some say that if you are the first person to hear a TommyKnocker you will be cursed or will die very soon. Which leads to hearing one at your door as a very bad omen indeed. In short TommyKnockers are a portent to death.

  • Thank you! But the question is really about the tommy- prefix; any idea about that? I think the Q. provides ample context for what you explain i.e. myth.
    – user98955
    Mar 27, 2015 at 18:51
  • I think I have discovered the correct answer! The name "Tommy" was used to indicate a British soldier during the same time period (early 1900's) that Cornish (British) miners brought the legend to the U.S. mines. So American miner's calling them "TommyKnockers" was a way to say the Knockers were British, or of British origin.
    – NjayneM
    Mar 28, 2015 at 5:06

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