I just came across this phrase for the first time in 1984, book 2 chapter 4. The sentence reads (speaking of Mr. Charrington):

Nor did he seem shocked or become offensively knowing when it was made clear that Winston wanted the room for the purpose of a love-affair.

It also appears in Newton Booth Tarkington's Gentle Julia:

He wore a fully developed moustache, an easy smile, clothes offensively knowing; and his hair began to show that scarcity which Julia felt gave him distinction—a curious theory, but natural to her age.

I've never encountered this phrase before and can't find a definition online, though it is itself used in Wordsmyth's definition of "smirk".

Does anyone have a clear definition of the phrase?


3 Answers 3


"Knowing" (definition 2b, Merriam-Webster), as an adjective, means that the person so described has inside information - one can give a "knowing look", a "knowing smile", etc.

To be "offensively knowing" means to give the impression of knowing a person's guilty secrets, and taking advantage of that knowledge to assert a higher level of intimacy or social status than would otherwise be acceptable (or pleasant).
A man who knows that a woman is having an affair might become "offensively knowing" and take liberties with her that he otherwise wouldn't dare to; a waiter or cabdriver who knows that his customer is doing something illegal might become "offensively knowing" and demand a higher tip (or give worse service) than usual.

  • This makes sense for the first quote, but what about the second? The phrase seems out of place there, describing a person's clothes.
    – Conman66
    Commented Aug 28, 2017 at 1:39
  • I would interpret the second one as meaning that the clothes give their wearer an air of offensive knowingness - perhaps a slightly criminal appearance? I haven't read Gentle Julia, so don't know anything more about the man being described.
    – MT_Head
    Commented Aug 28, 2017 at 1:58
  • By the way - a friend once called me a "knowing fuck-it-all", which I still think is one of the best things I've ever heard.
    – MT_Head
    Commented Aug 28, 2017 at 1:59

I would read it as that he took offensive after knowing this fact. It's a bit convoluted but I think the meaning is clear. Nothing wrong with an original coupling of words.

  • It doesn't seem to be original to Orwell, because I found an earlier instance of it, which I just added to the question.
    – Conman66
    Commented Aug 28, 2017 at 0:49
  • There are many, many earlier instances - just take a look at Google Books. As always, don't trust the dates as listed; click through to the scanned image and take a look at the front matter to get a more reliable publication date.
    – MT_Head
    Commented Aug 28, 2017 at 2:38

And "know" in the biblical sense means to "have sex with them".


“I knew her… in the biblical sense”, said the ribaldrous fellow with a wink and a nudge. Many are aware that “knowing in the biblical sense” is shorthand for sex. But few know what it is that’s ‘biblical’ about that ‘biblical sense.’ Well it all goes back to Genesis 4:1: “And Adam knew Eve his wife; and she conceived, and bare Cain.”

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