2019 UK-to-US Word of the Year: knock-on

It's the end of the year, and time to declare the Separated by a Common Language Words of the Year. As ever, I've got two categories: US-to-UK and UK-to-US. In other words: I'm interested in borrowings between these national dialects. To be a SbaCL WoTY, the word doesn't have to have been imported precisely in that year—it just needs to have been noticeable in some way. For past WotYs, see here. I'll post the US-to-UK word soon; this post is for UK-to-US.

I've been noticing a lot of Britishisms in American English this year (and, as ever, Ben Yagoda is recording many of them at his Not One-Off Britishisms [NOOB] blog). I've decided to go with one nominated by Neil Dolinger last month. The UK-to-US SbaCL Word of the Year is:


The relevant sense is defined by the Oxford English Dictionary as:
Being a secondary or indirect consequence of another action, occurrence, or event
It's most commonly found in the phrase knock-on effect, which is first recorded in the OED in 1972. Knock-on itself seems to have passed into general usage from physics:

Ben Yagoda's blog had knock-on effect as an "on-the-radar NOOB" in 2012, and the reason I've chosen it as the 2019 UK-to-US Word of the Year is its 2018-19 surge in US usage, as can be seen here in the US portion of the News on the Web corpus:

Of the 612 US examples of it in this corpus, 481 are in the phrase knock-on effect(s). Another 83 are followed by another noun, such as impact, employment, and delays.

It's still very much a British expression: while knock-on still occurs about 5 times per million British words in the News on the Web corpus, it's still less than once per million in the US news corpus (.63 in 2019 overall). And that corpus is showing the marks of globali{s/z}ation—a frequent source of knock-on in the US data is from the US edition of the UK paper The Guardian and of the Irish Times international edition. Still, it is showing up in a lot of homegrown US media: local news channels, the Washington Post, Forbes, Variety, and others:

Click to enlarge
Why is it more common in the first half of each year than the second? Well, for 2019, there are no examples after October, so I think that might be an effect of the corpus collection methods. It could also be because of rugby, in which knock-on is a noun (for when the ball is knocked forward). The Six Nations tournament starts in February and 4 out of 24 US examples of knock-on in February 2019 and 4 of 13 in March have the rugby sense. By contrast, in January and April, zero of the 29 US hits have the rugby sense. So, while there is definitely noise from the rugby sense in two months of the year, that effect seems limited.

I'll let Ben Yagoda have the last say about whether this shift is enough to take it from "on the radar" to being a full-blown Not One-Off Britishism in the US, but I thank Neil for nominating it.
But before I go, it seems fitting to mention this dialectal difference: BrE Heath Robinson machine versus AmE Rube Goldberg machine. You can click on the links to learn about their namesakes, but here's an OK Go video to illustrate knock-on effects, just for fun. Happy New Year!


  1. Hi! Curious what the corpus treats as "the US edition of the UK paper The Guardian". We have a homepage that's tailored to US readers but it contains a mix of stuff, some produced out of our US offices and some from back in the UK (or Australia!). Internally we know what comes from where but this isn't exposed to the reader.

  2. It’ll be done by URL, so it’s got UK content—which is why it was important to note it as a complicating factor

  3. Just curious, but isn't it likely that the physics use derives from the rugby use, which is about a century older?

    1. It’s certainly possible, but not necessary. OED gives them under the same entry, but they have different stress patterns.

  4. It is worth noting that even the physics usage is markedly British. All the OED citations for it are from British sources, and that agrees with my experience that British scientists are much more likely to use the expression than Americans. (I'm not sure about speakers of other varieties of English.) This may be an indication that the use of "knock-on" in physics did indeed originate out of the rugby usage.

    1. Yes, the Britishness of the physics use was what I was trying to show there. But I still don't think it's necessary leap to rugby, as the meaning without reference to rugby is more transparent.

      A rugby knock-on is not one thing knocking on to another to move it. But the imagery of a knock-on effect is one thing hitting another thing and moving it, like a domino effect, but just with two things.

    2. Meant to include this, with a diagram of a knock-on:


  5. Never heard the expression. Massachusetts.

  6. Never heard of it before. And aside from the definition given above, which is physics jargon, I still don't know what it means.

    --U.S., Fl.

  7. 'Knock-on effect' means much the same as 'unintended consequence'.

  8. Unfortunately it seems to mean almost nothing at all in most cases. A knock-on effect is often just an effect, a sea-change is just a change, and an epicentre is just a centre.

  9. One-off is a phrase used here several times, I'd never heard it before the late 1980s. Before that the phrase I knew was one-of, ending in one f with a v sound.


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AmE = American English
BrE = British English
OED = Oxford English Dictionary (online)