Knuckling Down



I was fixing something in the microwave a few days ago, I don’t remember what since all my signature dishes are made in the microwave, and I had something from the food on the tips of my fingers. Not wanting to mess up the pads with my ingredients, I used the knuckle to my index finger to set the oven. It occurred to me then that knuckles are fairly useful and perhaps underappreciated.
Anatomically, of course, we have three knuckles on each finger (although the one next to the finger tip isn’t used for much except light rapping) and two on the thumb. Without our finger and thumb joints we wouldn’t be able to manage such hallmarks of civilization as holding a baseball bat. We might as well have a couple of paddles at the ends of our arms. Good for table tennis, maybe but not so useful for holding a pen or playing the guitar.
Our language reflects the importance of our knuckles. When we become serious about doing something, we knuckle down to it. This expression most likely came from the game of marbles when the player was ready to put his marble in play by literally putting his knuckle down on the ground. The bunch of kids I hung with never played marbles although I grew up in the long–ago days before video games. There are a number of variations to marbles and even different terms for different types of marbles, but you’ll have to look elsewhere for an explanation. I’m about as clueless about marbles as I am about cricket.
There are number of other expressions involving the knuckles. I learned about one of them in a very direct fashion. When I was in fifth grade and in fact for much of elementary school I had a smart mouth (Faithful Readers will be astonished to learn this, I know). I kept shooting off my mouth to the resident gang of juvenile delinquents who were all about sixteen years old in the fifth grade. One day at recess I said something smart to one of them and he asked me if I wanted a knuckle sandwich. Any sort of sandwich sounded good to me and I said, “Sure” and he popped my in the mouth with his fist. I think I was so surprised that I didn’t even feel it, but from that time on I knew for certain what a knuckle sandwich was. You could also say I knuckled under.
In sports, there was once bare knuckle boxing, and the phrase has come to mean going at a particular task without much equipment or preparation, like playing football without a helmet. Then there is the knuckle ball, a pitch in baseball thrown with the knuckles which moves in unusual ways. Catchers who caught knuckleballers had to develop special oversized gloves to handle the erratic way the pitches moved.
In general, “white knuckled” has come to describe a terrifying ride generally either in a car or an airplane. And then there’s the expression “knuckle head” which we don’t’ hear much any more, It was my favorite uncle’s fond nickname for me when I was growing up.
“Knuckle” is also applied metaphorically to objects that look like knuckles. Couplers on railroad cars are called knuckle couplers. They replaced the earlier link and pin couplers which caused a lot of injuries.
Certain animals also have knuckles, and primates engage in what is called knuckle walking. They also do finger walking (literally, not through the Yellow Pages) and hand walking. Of course, they don’t have opposable thumbs so they can’t throw a knuckle ball. Pigs are said to have knuckles although that part of the ham is more properly their feet. Their knuckles are not like ours since they don’t have fingers. There is a reference to pickled pig knuckles in the last part of To Kill a Mockingbird. And everyone told me a degree in English was useless.
As Bubba Gump said about shrimp, “that’s about all I know about knuckles.” Maybe you know some more and you can share that knowledge with your friends.

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