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When taken literally, the colloquial phrases "Knock it off" and "Cut it out" do not seem to mean "Stop what you're doing." How did these two phrases get their current meanings?

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Etymology online says knock it off is a request given to an auctioneer to end bidding (by knocking his gavel). While the entry puts the first usage as 1880, the same entry cites a US Senate record of 1834.

Command knock it off "stop it" is first recorded 1880, perhaps from auctioneer's term for "dispose of quickly:"

... if no body bid, after it was cried two or three times, he would say, knock it off, knock it off. [U.S. Senate record, 1834]

The folk etymologies for "cut it out" are worse.

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  • Actually that's not what Etymonline says; it says knockoff (n.) also knock-off, "cheap imitation," 1966, from the verbal phrase knock off "do hastily" (1817), in reference to the casual way the things are made. The verbal phrase knock off is attested from 1640s as "desist, stop" (work, study, etc.), hence knockoff (n.) "act of leaving work" (1899) and, probably, the command knock it off "stop it" (1880), which was perhaps reinforced by the auctioneer's use of the term for "dispose of quickly."
    – Stuart F
    May 22, 2023 at 11:47
  • So "knock it off" probably derives originally from the sense "do it quickly, finish it off", attested in 1817.
    – Stuart F
    May 22, 2023 at 11:48
  • @StuartF, that is what etymonline said a decade ago, although it does not say that today. I had pasted the etymonline in my answer precisely to avoid the link rot you have observed. I do not know why they removed "knock it off." EO is left with a different compound word, "knockoff."
    – rajah9
    May 22, 2023 at 15:51
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Knock off has numerous meanings, so it’s unlikely that there is one explanation for them all. The OED’s earliest citation in the sense ‘to dispatch, dispose of, put out of hand, accomplish; to complete or do hastily’ is dated 1817, but it has been used to mean ‘To cause to desist or leave off from work’ since 1651. The earliest citation for the imperative meaning ‘leave off! stop it!’ is from 1902.

The OED’s earliest citation for cut it out in the sense ‘to stop doing or using (something); to leave off, do without, omit, drop’ is from 1914. The development from the literal to the figurative is perhaps not too hard to understand.

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    Interesting. In the US "knock off" is usually used as a noun to mean "fake" or "counterfeit."
    – oosterwal
    Jan 6, 2013 at 0:22
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    @oosterwal. As an adjective, presumably. Jan 6, 2013 at 7:40
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    As a noun, as in "This painting looks like a knock off."
    – oosterwal
    Jan 7, 2013 at 14:25
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    I'd always thought the sense @oosterwal mentioned was British, but I don't know so much check that out soon. It's from the "complete or do hastily" sense, implying that they aren't of comparable quality to the real thing. While a noun, I've certainly seen it used as an adjective too ("knock off t-shirt" or "knockoff t-shirt", etc.).
    – Jon Hanna
    Jan 15, 2013 at 18:59
  • The question is about the phrase "knock it off" not the phrase "knock off."
    – cbbcbail
    Jan 18, 2013 at 1:27

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