Where does the expression "you could have knocked me over with a feather" come from? My students had never heard it when I used it in class the other day.

  • 1
    What kind of class is this? Is it teaching English as a foreign language or just younger native English speakers? – Mitch Feb 15 '15 at 14:11
  • I'd say native speakers would have no problem with this idiomatic expression. There's also the variation with "down": idioms.thefreedictionary.com/…! How old are the students? – Mari-Lou A Feb 15 '15 at 21:37
  • Thank you, Hugo and Mari-Lou. This was my first time using Stack Exchange and you found a couple of wonderful examples for me to share. The students in question are American HS seniors, so their innocence of this idiom suggests its use may have declined somewhat in recent years.--LCC – LCC Feb 16 '15 at 23:11

knock (someone) down with a feather: to overcome with surprise. This hyperbole dates from the early nineteenth century. An early appearance in print is in William Cobbettt's Rural Rides (1821): "You might have knocked me down with a feather." Today it is more often used with the conditional could (instead of might)

The Dictionary of clichés

According to the Early American Proverbs and Proverbial Phrases, it dates the idiom back to 1796.

To knock one down with a feather
1796 Cobbett Porcupine 4.131: as the old women say, you might have knocked me down with a feather. Barbour 63(7); Oxford 433;

From the Internet Archive: William Cobbet's Rural Rides

I came to a group of shabby houses upon a hill. While the boy was watering his horses, I asked the ostler the name of the place; and, as the old women say, “you might have knocked me down with a feather,” when he said, “Great Bedwin.” The whole of the houses are not intrinsically worth a thousand pounds. There stood a thing out in the middle of the place, about 25 feet long and 15 wide, being a room stuck up on unhewed stone pillars about 10 feet high.

And many thanks to Hugo who found the relevant 1796 excerpt in Porcupine's Works; containing various Writings and Selections, (...) in Twelve Volumes (May 1801)

  • The Rural Rides link is broken. – Hugo Feb 16 '15 at 12:08
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    And here is the September 1796 by Cobbett, in an 1801 collection, which antedates the OED's 1853 by a fair whack. – Hugo Feb 16 '15 at 12:41
  • Thank you so much @Hugo that's really kind of you! Ahh, a good deed for the day. :) – Mari-Lou A Feb 16 '15 at 12:43

A variant found in Samuel Richardson's Pamela; or, Virtue Rewarded (1740):

"I was so confounded at these words, you might have beat me down with a feather."

  • Published: Jan 01, 1740 Publisher: Public Domain – Hot Licks Jun 25 '16 at 20:26
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    Hi, Tim McPike. I added a link to a public-domain copy of Pamela so that interested readers could easily see the quotation in context if they wanted to do so. As Hot Licks notes, there are no copyright issues with the copy of the novel that I've linked to. Your link to the novel at the iBooks Store seemed nonessential (and unnecessarily commercial) to me, so I removed it too. – Sven Yargs Jun 26 '16 at 1:08

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