“Taking a knee”: Simple phrase, powerful—and changing—meaning

Used in military and football slang, the phrase take a knee dates back to at least 1960. 

This past weekend, millions of viewers witnessed American football players, among other athletes and celebrities, “take a knee” during the playing of the US national anthem ahead of kickoff. The kneelers, among others who stayed in locker-rooms or locked arms in solidarity, were defying US President Donald Trump’s recent remarks profanely calling for athletes protesting the anthem and flag by refusing to stand to be “fired.”

With #TakeAKnee (and #TakeTheKnee, though Google Trends identifies take a knee as much a more popular search) taking off online, millions more of us witnessed the gesture, and expression, “take a knee” take on a new meaning in the broader public consciousness—and lexicon.

The protests began last fall in the National Football League (NFL) preseason when then San Francisco 49ers quarterback Colin Kaepernick sat on the bench during the anthem to protest police brutality against minorities. As he explained in a post-game interview:

I am not going to stand up to show pride in a flag for a country that oppresses black people and people of color. To me, this is bigger than football and it would be selfish on my part to look the other way. There are bodies in the street and people getting paid leave and getting away with murder.

Though sitting itself has a long history in the Civil Rights protests, Kaepernick, joined by teammate Eric Reid, made a different gesture in his final preseason game: They took a knee, i.e., knelt down on one knee. Before the game, Kaepernick and Reid spoke with Nate Boyer, a former long snapper and Green Beret, who had previously written him a letter expressing a frustrated understanding of his protest. During their conversation, Boyer encouraged Kaepernick to “take a knee” as a compromise, in part honoring men and women who have sacrificed themselves for what the anthem and flag represent and in part peacefully protesting injustices that have failed to live up to that symbolism.

As Boyer told CBS Sports:

We sorta came to a middle ground where he would take a knee alongside his teammates. Soldiers take a knee in front of a fallen brother’s grave, you know, to show respect. When we’re on a patrol, you know, and we go into a security halt, we take a knee, and we pull security.

And as Eric Reid himself noted in an editorial for the New York Times on Monday:

We chose to kneel because it’s a respectful gesture. I remember thinking our posture was like a flag flown at half-mast to mark a tragedy.

The gesture of taking a knee is a dynamic and complex one, and one that many soldiers, like Boyer, indeed do to show respect for their fallen fellows or to take a rest while on a mission.

Catholics also traditionally take knees—or genuflect—before the altar, as did subjects before rulers in antiquity and the Middle Ages. Marriage-proposers also traditionally take knees when asking for their partner’s hand in marriage. Kneeling, here, is at once submissive and reverential, showing humility and adoration.

Quarterbacks also kneel during actual gameplay. If a team has a slim lead at the end of the game, for instance, they quarterback will often will drop to one knee when snapped the ball. This ends the play but also runs down the clock in order to avoid a fumble or interception and thus lose their lead.

In its entry for the term, Dictionary.com cites the Historical Dictionary of American Slang for the colloquial football phrase, which dates it back to the 1990s.

Early evidence on Google Books turns up the gridiron expression in 2003, the same year Boise State Broncos football coach Dan Hawkins memorably said of his decision not to run down the clock when his team had a one-score lead with less than a minute to go in the game:

If we had knelt on the ball at the end of the game, wouldn’t that have been the end of the game? Yeah, it would have been. But Gandhi didn’t take a knee, Martin Luther King didn’t take a knee, Thomas Edison didn’t take a knee, and I sure as hell am not going to take a knee.

Knee itself—this is an etymology blog after all—comes from the Old English cnéow, whose initial k sound was originally pronounced. The Oxford English Dictionary dates cnéow to as early as 825; its derived verb, kneel, is found around 1000. The words come from a common Germanic and, before it, Indo-European root for the body part. The genu– in the Latin-based genuflect, for instance, is related, as is the Greek -gon, or “angle,” in words like pentagon.

Google Books also yields an early military use in 2000, from J.S. Kindrick’s Gulf War-era novel The Spirit Horses:

I instinctively take a knee to one side of the wadi in preparation of our react-to-contact drill, an Australian peel-back, as I hear the distinct and unmistakable flat pop of an AK.

Kindrick’s knee-taking depicts the gesture as a defensive maneuver, allowing soldiers to steady themselves and quickly pivot back into action.

Another sports-related example comes in 2000 from Thomas M. Gerbasi’s boxing chronicles, Ring Ramblings:

By the tenth round, McClellan was blinking constantly, and you just had the gut feeling that something was very wrong. Gerald took a knee twice, the second time for a 10 count.

Gerbasi’s knee-taking is an effort to stabilize, to resist an inevitable defeat.

But the earliest example Google Books offers for forms of taking a knee comes in a 1993 edition of the journal Military Medicine. Describing use of a knee-pad, a soldier marks off taking a knee as a novel expression:

…I slipped in a knee pad in each side. This was not restrictive, sweaty, or expensive. I “took a knee” on whichever knee was less swollen that day, and I switched pad sides occasionally.

I’ll leave it to much more capable ante-daters for when, exactly, take a knee emerges, as well as to the lexicographers who can deftly tease it out from other similar formations in the language, e.g., drop to a knee.

But there’s no doubt that Kaepernick, along with the increasingly many who are joining him on and off the field in solidarity, that the act of taking the knee—one already laden with complex symbolism—has emerged with a powerful and provocative new meaning, a meaning of peaceful, public protest against injustice and inequality.

And I, for one, am especially curious to see if the very phrase take a knee becomes its own metaphorical shorthand for protest in speech.

Update: 

I wanted antedatings, and Ben Zimmer delivered. He’s found an example of take a knee in 1960 concerning a University of South Carolina Gamecocks Varsity-Alumni game, when an alumni player asked his teammates to “take a knee for a moment of silence for our Rex Enright,” a coach and athletic director who had recently died. For much more from Zimmer, head over to the excellent blog, Language Log. I’ve updated the teaser to reflect Zimmer’s excellent research.

m ∫ r ∫ 

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