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Knick Knack Paddywhack

Posted by Admin on May 17, 2016

There are a lot of strange explanations as to what knick knack paddywhack means, but few stranger than the one Idiomation found online where this was offered up by a thoroughly serious ‘netizen.

Paddy is slang for a police officer and whack is slang for murder.  Nick is associated with the mob, and the mob has a knack for killing people even when there’s police protection in place.  So knick knack paddywhack is a way of saying that even the police aren’t safe, and if the mob has a hit out on someone, there’s nothing anyone can do to stop it from happening.

No.  That’s not what knick knack paddywhack means.  Full points to the person who came up with that creative explanation!

Paddywhackery (and yes, there is such a word) is the word that describes the stereotypical portrayal of the Irish in stage productions.  These stereotype Irishmen are charming, talkative ne’er-do-wells but lovable rogues nonetheless.  But does this mean that a paddywhack is some kind of Irishman?

In Francis Grose’s 1785 book “Dictionary of the Vulgar Tongue” the term is one that refers to a brawny Irishman.  Paddy was short for Patrick, the patron saint of Ireland, and according to Francis Grose, all this made sense when viewed this way.  The verse quoted in the dictionary is this:

I’m paddywhack, from Ballyhack,
Not long ago turned soldier;
In storm and sack, in front attack,
None other can be bolder.

Idiomation found pinning down knick knack a little trickier than tracking paddywhack.  That being said, knick knack appears as knichts they knack in the traditional Scottish folk song titled, “The Ballad of Burd Isabel and Earl Patrick.”

The Knichts they knack their white fingers,
The ladies sat and sang,
‘Twas a’ to cheer bonnie Burd Bell,
She was far sunk in pain.

INTERESTING NOTE 1:  The word first appeared in ballads of the 1200s as a poetic term for a young maiden.  By the 1400s, it was a term used by men of the upper class to refer to women of a lower social standard than they.

But what was knackingKnackers was a term for castanets and was first referred to as such in 1649 in “Fool’s Dance: An Allusion.”  Knacking would be to play the castanets in this instance.  However, knick-knack / nick nack was also a term used in the 1570s to mean an ingenious device or a specialised trick.  Knacking would be to use the device or practice one’s specialised trick in this instance.

So was a knick knack Paddywhack a brawny Irishman with a specialised trick or ingenious device who enjoyed dancing with castanets on his fingertips?  Not likely (although the visual is amusing)!

Or is knick knack actually a derivation of mack whack found in the song “Paddywhack” that was popular at the turn of the 19th century?

Oh, here I am and that is flat,
I am just from the town of Bally hack;
And what a’ye say to that”
My name is gimlet-eyed paddy whack.

Di du mack whack,
And where are yee from?
The town of Bally hack
Where seven praties weigh a ton.

Or perhaps a misremembering of the words from “The Irish Duel” that was popular in Ireland and England at around the same time.

Potatoes grow in Limerick,
And beef at Ballymore,
And buttermilk is beautiful,
But that you knew before;
And Irishmen love pretty girls,
Yet none could love more true,
Than little Paddy Whackmacrack
Lov’d Kate O’Donohoo.
With his fal de ral, fal de ral,
de ral, de ral, de ra.

What this means is that the mystery of Knick Knack Paddywhack remains.  If one of Idiomation’s readers or visitors can shed some light on this idiom, be sure to add it in the Comments section below.

5 Responses to “Knick Knack Paddywhack”

  1. Erik said

    What about the “This Old Man” song? First thing I thought of when I saw your title. The chorus (or whatever) goes something like:

    knick knack paddywack
    give a dog a bone
    this old man came rolling home.


  2. Vee* said

    This old man he played one,
    He played knick-knack on his ….(?) – (drum,bone, thumb, bum?)
    With a knick-knack paddywack,
    Give a dog a bone,
    This old man came rolling home.

    (Singing this over and over, I’m fairly positive the second line ends in “drum”. Soldier returning home from war?)

  3. Vee* said

    Just remembering the second verse:

    This old man he played two,
    He played knick-knack on his shoe,
    With a knick-knack paddywack, etc, etc

    This old man he played three,
    He played knick-knack on his knee, etc, etc

    If I keep singing this, I may even remember where the rest of the numbers are played.

    Though, this is getting further and further away from any meaningful interpretation of the song and the expression “paddywack/er”, and closer to a “learning to count” song; much like “Ten Green Bottles” and “Ten in the Bed”.

    The initial comments from Elyse Bruce, mention “knacking” being related to castanets, and I have seen in traditional Irish folk bands where someone plays (wooden) two-part instrument ,on various parts of the body, much like playing “spoons”. Maybe it’s more literal than allegorical: it is an old man playing “knackers” against anything that will make the right sound and those places (beyond the body) are chosen because they rhyme with the appropriate number.

    May be life is sometimes simpler than it seems.

  4. Ted said

    A frog went into a bank and requested a loan from the loan officer, Patricia Whack. He explained that he was Mick Jagger’s son
    She asked him for collateral and he showed her a small version of the Eiffel Tower.
    She was dubious and went to ask her manager.
    The manager thought it over and then said, “It’s a knick nack, Patty Whack, give the frog a loan. His old man’s a Rolling Stone

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