Knuckle Down – Idiom – Its Meaning & Origin


If someone says they’re going to “knuckle down,” then that means they are going to get serious. They are done playing around!

Example: Baldwin needed to give his bathroom a serious cleaning, but he’s been putting it off for a while. He really doesn’t want to clean the dirty bathroom. But the longer he waits, the worse it will get! So his wife told him it was time for him to knuckle down and get it over with.​

In other words, Baldwin was told to stop prolonging the cleaning process and just do it already. It was time to face the bathroom.

Synonyms / Related Phrases:
Buckle down
Put out all the stops
Time to get serious
Artwork for a marble
People “knuckle down” in the game of marbles.

The Origin Of “Knuckle Down”

The origin of this expression is not certain, however there’s a theory that alludes to the game of marbles as being responsible.

Marbles have been enjoyed by children and even adults for a very long time now. In fact, there are examples of marbles that have been found that are said to be thousands of years old, from ancient Egypt.

Here is the basic gist of how marbles is played: It’s a game about aiming and precision. The goal is to hit your opponents marble with your own from a set distance. This is done by rolling the marble along the ground. When getting ready to roll the marble, the player puts their knuckles down to the ground (hence the phrase) in a fist-like fashion. Then, while holding the marble in place with their bent index finger, they’ll aim and flick it with their thumb. I’m not entirely sure if it’s required for players to shoot with their knuckles down or if they can just roll it however they like.

​Anyways, the phrase goes back to at least the 18th century. It is written in a book called A New General English Dictionary; Perculiarly calculated for the Use and Improvement Of such as are unacquainted with the Learned Languages, which was first worked on by Thomas Dyche. Then later, it was finished by William Pardon around the year 1740. A part of the book defines the words knuckle and knuckle down, and it reads like so:

“To stoop, bend, yield, comply with, or submit to; and is a particular phrase used by lads, at a play called taw, wherein they frequently say, Knuckle down to your taw, or fix your hand exactly in the place where your marble lies.”

taw, from the quote, can refer to a marble.

Example Sentences

  1. After placing third in the swimming competition, Jeff decided to knuckle down for the next event as he aims to take first place.

Note: The origins for most common idioms cannot be said with a certainty. What’s provided are theories that may be plausible to how a phrase originated, but not necessarily so. 
In addition, quotes that contain a particular phrase may be taken from old newspapers, poems, or books that were written centuries ago, but this by no means confirms that the phrase originates from said newspapers, poems, or books. In all likelihood, if an expression is being used in a newspaper, it’s probably already a well known saying and is from an older time.

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