The coronavirus pandemic hasn’t provided too many moments of levity, but one of them surely is the spectacle of New Jersey politicians arguing over the definition of “knucklehead.”
Ever since instituting lockdown rules in late March, New Jersey Governor Phil Murphy has used his daily press briefings to chastise those who have violated the stay-at-home orders, calling them “knuckleheads.” Taking a cue from the governor, the state’s Department of Transportation has placed a message on digital signs along some highways: “Don’t be a knucklehead, keep a safe distance.”
That didn’t sit right with Joe Pennacchio, a Republican state senator. “I strongly condemn the flippant language the Governor has used in press conferences and on these signs,” Mr. Pennacchio said in a statement, adding a lexicographical note: “Webster defines a knucklehead as a ‘stupid person.’ Is that what you think of sacrificing New Jersey citizens? Really?”
On Monday, Mr. Murphy pushed back. “I was criticized by someone, a legislator, for using the word ‘knucklehead,’” he said in his press briefing. “So I looked it up for myself, and the definition is ‘a stupid, bumbling, inept person,’” which he found to be “quite consistent with some of the behavior” he has seen from scofflaws. He had considered two alternatives, “blockhead” and “numbskull,” but said he opted for “knucklehead” because “it’s got three syllables and it’s got a little bit more oomph.”
Before it was an insult, ‘knucklehead’ had a more prosaic meaning.
Is there anything really objectionable about using the word? (One local radio personality joked that it’s “not even in the top ten” of insults hurled by New Jersey politicians.) It has a bit of an old-fashioned ring to it, evoking The Three Stooges and Moe’s neverending consternation with the antics of Larry and Curly (or Shemp). Moe used “knucklehead” more or less interchangeably with “imbecile” and “lamebrain.”
Before it was an insult, “knucklehead” had a more prosaic meaning. While “knuckle” chiefly refers to the joint of a finger, it can also be used for things resembling a joint, such as the part of a hinge that a pin or rivet passes through. A “knuckle head,” then, could designate the top of a hinged device, such as in an 1868 patent for a horse hay fork.
Soon enough, however, “knucklehead” joined other “head” epithets already slung at foolish people for generations, like “blockhead” (first evidence of use in 1549), “dunderhead” (1630), and the rhyming “chucklehead” (1726). “Knucklehead” could suggest the hardness of knuckles bent in a fist—or, as slang lexicographer Jonathon Greensurmises, “knuckles pressed to the forehead imply the intensity of thought for one who is not overly bright.”
In 1890, Charles H. Shinn, a forest ranger in California, used the word in a widely syndicated story, “The Quicksands of Toro.” One character, a cattle rancher on the Pacific Coast, thinks to himself, “That infernal knuckle-head at the camp ought to have reported before now.”
As an insult, “knucklehead” did not start showing up frequently in American slang for a few more decades. A woman wrote to the Minneapolis Star Tribune in 1936 to say that “for years my husband has called an ignorant, careless or reckless driver a ‘knucklehead.’”
But it was World War II that truly popularized the word, thanks largely to the cartoon character Cadet R.F. Knucklehead, used on Army Air Force posters as a cautionary tale. As the New York Herald Tribune explained in September 1941, the character “received his name because ‘knucklehead’ has long been a term to describe individuals who fail to obey elementary flight rules, officers of the Air Forces reveal.” Whatever Knucklehead did, the air cadets were implored not to do.
While Cadet Knucklehead is largely forgotten, the word is still associated in the public imagination with The Three Stooges and their short slapstick films. In fact, “knucklehead” was rarer than other insults in the Stooges’ dialogue. Gary Lassin, proprietor of The Stoogeum, a memorabilia museum outside of Philadelphia, told me that, much like pie fights, “‘knucklehead’ is actually less prevalent than perceived” in the Stooges’ oeuvre.
Still, when Mr. Murphy or others use “knucklehead” now, they likely have the Stooges in mind—perhaps helped along by Curly’s signature laugh, “nyuk, nyuk, nyuk.”
By Ben Zimmer
Most Western countries have been in lockdown for more than a month to slow the spread of the CCP virus, commonly known as novel coronavirus. Schools have been emptied and all businesses deemed nonessential have been closed by government order.
This is an enormously expensive strategy. Our governments are basically printing money to keep this system of forced unemployment going. While we have no idea what the final economic cost will be, we already know that we are saddling the next generation with crushing debt.
Social costs such as depression, suicide, spousal abuse, and other pathologies might be even worse than the financial cost.
The rationale behind these extraordinary measures has been to “flatten the curve”—in plainspeak, to prevent hospitals from being overwhelmed by a surge in admissions. The theory of the experts is that all of the social distancing measures and closures will accomplish that task. We have all lived with these new restrictions on our liberties, and the spirit of cooperation and goodwill is high. We are a resilient species.
Yet there are questions that should be asked. Those of us lucky enough to live in a free society should exercise our right to do so.
It’s now apparent that hospital systems haven’t been overwhelmed by the feared surge in admissions. In fact, even in the worst-affected areas, the hospital systems have held up. In some lightly affected areas, hospitals are actually underused because normal procedures have been rescheduled to accommodate a surge that never came. The social distancing measures adopted by most people have no doubt contributed to keeping those numbers low.
However, there is less evidence that the draconian measures, such as closing schools and most small businesses, were necessary in the first place.
Not every country has adopted extreme lockdown measures. Sweden is an example of a country—acting on scientific advice that it found compelling—that advised its citizens to take sensible social distancing steps, but didn’t close most of its primary schools and small businesses. Most restaurants remain open, as do most small businesses. Its hospital system remains intact, and it doesn’t appear that the death rate is much different than in countries that are locked down.
The experts who warned Swedish leaders that they must close their schools and businesses or face catastrophic deaths have so far been proven wrong.
The World Health Organization insisted that Sweden follow its “advice” and enter lockdown along with the rest of Europe, but Sweden prefered to follow its own course. It’s probable that when the virus has run its course there, the Swedes will have a much easier time getting their country back to normal. It’s also likely that the Swedes will be immune from the next wave of the disease—having achieved “herd immunity”—while citizens of locked down countries remain susceptible to the virus.
Taiwan, South Korea, Singapore, and Japan are some of the other countries that took sensible steps, but didn’t close their primary schools or businesses. Their hospital systems and economies remain intact. It’s also probable that their citizens are now largely immune to the virus.
And it’s beginning to look like those countries got it right, and we, the lockdown countries, got it wrong. Many experts make a compelling case that although social distancing is an excellent way for individuals to avoid catching the virus, nationwide shutdowns of the economy and school closures simply prolong the life of the virus in a community and make no difference in the overall number of deaths.
One such expert is Professor Yitzhak Ben Israel of Tel Aviv University. He’s one of a number who argue convincingly that regardless of whether a country locks down or remains open, the coronavirus peaks and subsides in exactly the same way. Put simply, Sweden won’t have a higher mortality rate than Britain—despite the fact that Britain shut its economy down at enormous cost. Knut Wittkowski, a former biostatistician at Rockefeller University, makes the same argument.
Is it possible that the leaders of most of the world’s nations have made a colossal mistake by shutting down economies, causing the biggest worldwide depression since the 1930s?
Our leaders need to come clean with us. What is their game plan? Why did they close our schools and businesses? Why didn’t they do what Taiwan or Sweden have done? They said they wanted to “flatten the curve.” The curve has been “flattened.” Do they now have some magic plan to stop the virus from making its way through the community, as every virus has done since the dawn of time?
Do they have some plan to make the virus disappear? If so, they should tell us what it is.
If not, they should begin the painful process of getting the economy moving again. The first step should be reopening the schools and selected businesses. As with any flu, schoolchildren will get sick, but most won’t. Yes, they will infect parents and others, but all viruses do that. It is a normal part of a school year. Did closing the schools ever make sense, or did it just prolong the life of the virus in the community? Did our leaders close the schools just because everyone else was doing it?
The available evidence already shows that the overwhelming percentage of healthy people infected will get sick and recover—or not get sick at all. Nature has designed healthy bodies to cope with respiratory illnesses. We also know that this virus seems to go mainly after elderly people with compromised health. This pandemic has starkly revealed how ill-prepared our nursing and home care system—and indeed, our entire medical system—are to protect the most vulnerable from infectious disease.
Clearly, changes must be made that reflect the new reality.
But we need to protect the elderly and infirm without compromising our children’s future. As a grandfather, I’m thankful that this particular virus goes after us and not the young. I don’t want to catch this virus, and I plan to voluntarily do as much social distancing and hand washing as practical to avoid getting it. But shouldn’t those steps be left to the individual and not mandated by government? And most importantly, isn’t keeping the country strong for our children our most important obligation?
If I do get sick, I know that the vast majority of healthy people recover from viral respiratory illnesses—even this nasty one. Could it be that we are giving in to irrational fears? Is it possible that some combination of a highly politicized media and our social media addiction has amplified this pandemic beyond all reason? It’s worth noting that the last significant pandemic, the 2009 swine flu, killed far more people worldwide than the CCP virus has, but generated nowhere near the level of media coverage or sheer panic as this one.
Do we even remember that pandemic?
And shouldn’t we keep in mind the distinct possibility that the next virus might single out our young? Don’t we need to rebuild a strong economy to prepare for that awful possibility? An economy in shreds will leave us hopelessly unprepared. Don’t we need to do that now, and not in a year or two, when every last virus has left the country?
If the plan is to wait for a vaccine, that appears to be at least a year or two away. Is it reasonable to live in lockdown for a year or two years? Would even seniors in compromised health want to spend the last stage of their life in isolation from their families? Even if a vaccine is found in a year or so, anyone who gets a flu shot knows that it may or may not be effective. Is it reasonable to put our lives in suspended animation while we wait for a new drug to be discovered?
So unless our leaders have some secret plan to somehow make this virus disappear, shouldn’t we protect the vulnerable as best we can, but start reopening schools and businesses now? Don’t we need to get our kids back to school, and people back to work?
And doesn’t it make sense to take a close look at how Sweden and the other countries that didn’t resort to these draconian, freedom-crushing strategies remained open, so we can learn from them? Are we not simply delaying the inevitable when we adopt knee-jerk measures such as school closures that simply keep the virus around longer?
And finally, are we capable of learning from this experience so we can do better when the next horrid little bug comes along?
Brian Giesbrecht is a retired judge and a senior fellow with the Frontier Centre for Public Policy.