I’m finally getting to watch The Wire, frequently cited as the best television show ever (yes, I know there are other contenders, and I wish jamessal were still around to discuss the matter); I’m six episodes in and completely gripped — the only way I can keep from binging is by reading discussions of each episode after I see it to decompress. I find I have surprisingly little trouble with the various accents, but speaking of accents, I have seen various people complaining that Dominic West, an Englishperson who in general does a good job playing Baltimore cop Jimmy McNulty, screws up by saying /ˈnaːko/ for what the complainants assume should be narco ‘narcotics officer’ (i.e., he’s inexplicably reverting to his native non-rhotic accent for that one word). But this is nonsense: he’s using the separate (and less well known) term knocko ‘(US black) a police officer, esp. a member of the drugs squad,’ from (as Green nicely puts it) “the knocking at one’s door or on one’s skull.” Here are Green’s citations, including one from the second episode of the show:

1950 [US] Goldin et al. DAUL 119/1: Knock-man. A policeman; an informer; a complaining witness in criminal proceedings.
1992 [US] R. Price Clockers 4: The white guy […] looked too twitchy and scared to be a knocko.
1997 [US] Simon & Burns Corner (1998) 16: Plainclothesmen. Knockers. Six police jump out of two unmarked Chevrolets.
2002 [US] Simon & Burns ‘The Detail’ Wire ser. 1 ep. 2 [TV script] Western [Baltimore] knockos come around here, picking shit up off the ground.
2021 [US] J. Fenton We Own This City 4: [T]he officers most likely to make up the plainclothes units known around town as ‘knockers’ or ‘jumpout boys,’ a reference to their aggressive tactics.

So now you know.


  1. Green doesn’t justify his etymology. Couldn’t it be in fact related to non-rhotic nark ‘informer’ (unconnected to narcotics), first attested in 19th century British slang, from Romani nak ‘nose’?

  2. David Eddyshaw says

    I find I have surprisingly little trouble with the various accents

    My daughter found the dialog in the first episode largely incomprehensible (rather to my surprise) and got quite upset about it. She got better with practice though.

    It gets my vote for Best Television Ever. (The second series is comparatively weak, apparently because of Executive Meddling. Only comparatively weak though. It’s still terrific. I’m only mentioning it because it would be a great pity not to proceed with the subsequent series.)

  3. They say you can enable captions to get the details of the dialogue if necessary.

    it would be a great pity not to proceed with the subsequent series

    I can’t even imagine bailing out; I’m in it to win it!

  4. J.W. Brewer says

    I had no idea about that venerable etymology for “nark,” probably not least because I came across the lexeme in my teens in a time and place where the “drug-jargon” false etymology seemed so blindingly obvious as not to require fact-checking. (Plus I don’t recall running across it in texts sufficiently old for it to seem anachronistic if derived from clipped “narcotic”.)

  5. Leaving aside the much older citation for “knock-man,” three out of four of Green’s citations for knocko/knocker are from texts with a Baltimore setting and the fourth from a novel set in a fictitious North Jersey city said to be a fictionalized blend of Newark and Jersey City – not all that far away from Baltimore all things considered. So “US black” may be overstating things if it’s actually a regionalism even within some relevant register of AAVE.

  6. In my admittedly limited experience the slang for plainclothes narcotics officer is narc. I’d never heard of narco before today (I do love The Wire but I guess I didn’t pick up on narco/knocko in the series).
    You’re gonna be hanging with Jimmy and Bunk for a long time but when you do take your leave you might give Treme a look. Or The Deuce.

  7. Thanks for the recommendations! I actually saw part of a season of Treme when it was running and liked it a lot.

  8. The OED has reservations about the Romani origin of nark:

    Origin uncertain.
    Perhaps < Angloromani nok nose (1863 in B. C. Smart Dial. Eng. Gypsies; compare Welsh Romani nakh , European Romani nak ); for the semantic development, compare the earlier use of nose in the sense ‘informer’ … However, the rendering of the Romani short vowel (o or a ) as a(r) in English is unusual. Also, the assumed development would require that the Romani word had an extended sense denoting a person, but this is not attested; if it did occur, it would most probably have been calqued on English nose ‘informer’, which would require that sense 2 should be the earlier sense.

    I’m guessing that the reference to “the Romani short vowel” is meant to forestall the explanation that nonrhotic English authors might have *written* an r to indicate vowel length but never pronounced it.

    Sense 2 is ‘informer’, but the more general sense 1, ‘annoying, unpleasant, obstructive, or quarrelsome person’, is attested a little earlier, 1846 vs. 1859, and there was also a more specific 19th-century use for ‘miser, uncharitable person’ (see Wordorigins for some examples). If the more general sense really is the older, that would count against a Romani origin, but this is the kind of word where we don’t really know.

  9. And of course Idris Elba’s accent is so incredibly good I had no idea he wasn’t American.

    Lots of fantastic hyperlocal Baltimore accents, both from white and black actors, particularly the former in the “docks” season.

    And if you like Season 1, wait until Season 4…

  10. David Eddyshaw says

    Sampson’s wonderful Dialect of the Gypsies of Wales indeed has no “nark” sense for nakh, though I see it does have the sense “headland”, “ness”: it never occurred to me that English “ness” itself might be cognate with “nose”, but I see that indeed it is:

  11. Stu Clayton says

    How to stream The Wire from Germany, in English ? What barely legal hoops must I jump through ? I’ve tried several times to use a VPN provider, but it delivered shit service.

    Amazon has season 1 in English, and the rest is dubbed. Sky has several seasons, but doesn’t in advance tell you in what language. Netflix and Disney+ have nothing.

    I’m happy to pay, but not for hassle and what-I-didn’t-want.

  12. @Stu
    Do you have a library card from the Stadtbibliothek Köln? They have all seasons on DVD.

  13. By God, you really can get answers to anything around here.

  14. @Stu : Why not buy the DVDs or BluRay discs? That’s what I did.

    On the audio commentaries, you can hear black actors with a New York City background remarking that Baltimore slang is totally different from the language spoken on the streets of NYC. The word hoppers for example (the underage boys involved in drug dealing) is completely unknown to New Yorkers.

    I second the recommendation for Treme.

  15. Stu Clayton says

    @sh: Do you have a library card from the Stadtbibliothek Köln?

    I sure as heck do ! Thanx, that would never have occurred to me. I hold a card in order to support the library system for other folks, although I rarely use it since I buy my books or pick them up at book dumps. The last time was several years ago, when Julia D’Onofrio asked me if I could get her a reprint of some article in German.

    @ulr: Yeah, I could buy the DVDs but I didn’t want the physical handling fuss. Thus streaming.

    Also, you can’t take it with you. I have an accountant right now reorganizing my moral records. He tells me that a net worth of zero looks better than the alternatives.

  16. Thank you for this post! I remember being surprised and confused 20 years ago by this momentary lapse of West’s—this clears it up! I also remember trying to find out what was meant by cottage-cheese chest ass motherfucker, but Reddit and the Urban Dictionary have made such enquiries much easier since then.

    In regard to English nark ‘informer’ from Welsh Romani nakh, the WordOrigins site has a collection of material related to nark. In addition to what is collected there, it is worth noting the semantic development of snitch as outlined in the OED:

    1. A fillip (on the nose). Obsolete.
    1676 E. Coles Eng. Dict. Snitch,..a fillip.

    2. The nose.
    1699   B. E. New Dict. Canting Crew: Snite his Snitch, Wipe his Nose, or give him a good Flap on the Face.
    1902  Westm. Gaz. 3 July 2/1   As the..egg..broke on the ‘snitch’ of the Socialist candidate.

    3. An informer; one who turns King’s or Queen’s evidence.
    1785   in F. Grose Classical Dict. Vulgar Tongue

    Entry in Grose here.. Also note Rotwelsch Nack ‘nose’, as here.

    About getting answers around here… In regard to knock-man ‘informer’ (per Goldin et al.), what is the story behind Russian стукач ‘snitch’ (beside стукать and стучать ‘to knock’)?

  17. the WordOrigins site: that’s what I linked to above.

    J.W. Brewer: I had no idea about that venerable etymology for “nark,” … the “drug-jargon” false etymology

    There isn’t an unambiguous line of descent from the 19th-century British slang to the 20th-century American; the drug etymology is not false, though it may be incomplete. The Wordorigins piece concludes:

    … this older nark never gained a firm foothold in North America, being confined chiefly to Britain, Australia, and New Zealand.

    The use of narco to mean drugs, a straightforward clipping of narcotics, appears by the 1950s. … By the mid-1960s narco had been clipped even further to narc or nark. …

    Whether this informer sense of narc was influenced by the older, British sense of nark meaning an informant is unknown. On the one hand, the clipping of narcotics to narco to narc is both documented and a completely ordinary pattern of morphological development. On the other hand, nark meaning an informer was already present in criminal slang. And it may be that North American use of narc and narco is utterly unrelated to the older term, where use in Britain is influenced by it. But to what degree the older term influenced the newer one is unknown and likely never to be determined.

    Merriam-Webster provides an example of a British verb sense ‘irritate, annoy’, which was completely unfamiliar to me:

    As home secretary, Theresa May narked cops by lecturing them in public and cutting back on their powers to stop and search passers-by.
    The Economist, 7 Nov. 2019

  18. PlasticPaddy says

    Антоний Погорельский. Монастырка (1833)

    ― Ну, ― сказал он, войдя к ним в комнату, ― слава Богу! уложил его спать, всё в порядке! Прекрасный молодой человек этот Блистовский! ― Да приказали ль вы, чтоб стукач не ходил у него под окошками эту ночь? ― сказала Марфа Петровна. ― Спросили ль вы, что он кушает по утрам: чай или кофе? ― Да надобно бы приказать, батюшка, ― подхватила Вера, ― чтоб Султана привязали где-нибудь по далее.

    This is the earliest quote I could find for stukach. Here the characters are concerned about the watchman (or the dog Sultana) making noise outside the visitor’s window. I believe, but am not able to provide a source, that the watchman made noise by banging a truncheon against gates, fences, shutters or window frames, etc.

  19. But Xerîb wanted to know how it came to mean ‘informer.’

  20. PlasticPaddy says

    I took the progression from watchman to informer as very plausible, i.e., gathering info to providing it. But I agree it may need more proof. I thought X was puzzled by progression hammering > informer. Sorry.

  21. True, it’s plausible, but so many things are plausible… It would be nice to have an actual etymologist say “This is how the sense developed.” (I love the fact that Russians can simply knock lightly on a handy surface to suggest there’s an informer in the room.)

  22. I liked the Doonesbury cartoon where Zonker calls Mike’s attention to a hidden microphone in their room: “Hey, Mike!” (The cops were trying to catch Zonker on drug crimes.)

  23. Is narky/snarky another transatlantic s-mobile difference, like pernickety/persnickety?

  24. Snarky also has some history in BrE. Green’s has snarky labeled as “orig. US”, but he may have missed the early citations in the OED from E. Nesbit, snark v. ‘find fault, nag’ in The Phoenix and the Carpet and snarky ‘irritable, short-tempered, ‘narky’’ in Railway Children.

    Separated by a Common Language briefly discussed snarky, sarky and narky and where they’re from. It’s also possible that the recent snarky ‘caustically mocking’ could have arisen as a blend of snide and sarcastic, independently from the older snarky.

  25. banging a truncheon against gates

    Batteur, more or less ‘snitch’, from a running feature called “Dictionnaire d’argot ou de jargue” in satirical newspaper Le Tintemarre in the year 1872, at the very top left of the page, defining batteur on the previous page.

    Traître, sournois, qui vend ses complices: C’est un batteur qui bonni nibbe, mais il en a, nous le savons. C’est un sournois qui sait se taire, mais il nous trahit, nous le savons.

    From beating some object somewhat like a drum as a signal to the cops? However, note sense 2.a of batteur in the Trésor. As for bonni, here is bonnir in the Trésor. (I had been wondering whether it was Sinte Romani pen- ‘say’.) And for nibbe, here is nib.

  26. OK, I’ve been trying to tell myself I wasn’t addicted; I had a strict rule of no more than one episode a day, and sometimes I actually went a day without watching. But today it was too much for me, and I gobbled up the last three episodes of the first season. Hi, my name is Steve and I am a Wire addict. But I’m going to try to follow the advice I saw in an online discussion board:

    I would say, it’s good to let some time pass in between each season. Even if just a couple weeks. Nice to let things absorb before switching gears, as each season has a different focal point.

    So hopefully I can hold off on Season 2 until January. But I can say this for certain: Best. Show. Evar.

  27. It might or might not be relevant, but “Knocko the Monk” was one of Gus Mager’s comic strips from the early twentieth century. (“Monk,” in this instance, is short for “monkey,” although it varied whether Mager drew the title character as human or a monkey.*) If there is a connection, it is presumably through Mager’s most famous strip, about the Hawkshaw the detective, a Sherlock Holmes parody.

    Knocko was the most prominent of a large number of characters with –o nicknames, some recurring and some nonce creations. One of the other regular characters was Groucho, and the overall pattern of the names was what inspired Art Fisher to give the four oldest Marx Brothers their nicknames. (Zeppo was too young to be touring with his brothers at that time.)

    Regarding narc: I grew up with the sense (which I would preferentially spell “nark”) meaning “stoolie, informer, tattletale” as a noun. There was an intransitive verb form as well. (Narking is what a nark does.) As a result, the sense of “narcotics officer” for narc feels entirely wrong to me, although narco is fine (albeit still not part of my normal idiolect).

    * This is the paraphyletic sense of monkey obviously.

  28. David Eddyshaw says

    I grew up with the sense (which I would preferentially spell “nark”) meaning “stoolie, informer, tattletale” as a noun.

    That’s interesting: is your idiolect rhotic? If so, that seems to be a problem for the Romani etymology.

  29. Brett is young enough that the clipping of narcotics to narc and the extension to ‘stoolie, informer’ were already established in AmE before he would have heard it. See Green’s, or the Wordorigins post linked above, for a citation from 1979. As mentioned, it is unknown whether the 20th-century American word was influenced by the older British word, or developed independently. If it was independent, then the presence of a rhotic r in the American word doesn’t disqualify the Romani origin for the British word.

  30. Knocko the Monk and its influence on the Marx Brothers’ nicknames were discussed here two years ago under Epithets: The Case of -o. The strip does seem to have had a lot to do with the origin of the fad for pejorative -o names, but the distance in time makes it implausible that there’s any specific connection with the regional-AAVE knocko.

  31. Just noting that I have (after the requisite period of reflection and readjustment) started the second season; needless to say, I’m completely at sea (appropriate, since Jimmy is now plying a harbor tugboat), but I have confidence that after a couple more episodes I’ll be thoroughly gripped and familiar with the new cast of characters and their relationships. But, to quote Little Big Roy, “Ain’t never gonna be what it was.”

  32. Update: I have finished the second season (gobbling up the last three episodes in one day) and have ordered a used copy of The Wire: Truth Be Told by Rafael Alvarez. What, me addicted?

  33. I’ve just finished season 3 and am pretty well knocked out; I think I’ll wait a few weeks before starting the fourth. After all, back when it was first on HBO viewers had to wait a couple of years…

  34. I finished season 5 on Tue., June 27. Eventually I’ll re-watch the whole thing…

  35. From Zak Keefer’s “Bird, ‘The Wire,’ a life sentence paroled and a Colts game 40 years in the making,” about a Baltimore guy named Antonio Barnes (nicknamed “Bird”):

    He was climbing the ranks, working with a high-up hustler named Butch Peacock. Anytime the plainclothes police — “Knockers” — would roll up, Butch would shout, “Bird, grab the bag and go!” and Barnes would listen, because he relished that feeling, of being needed, of being trusted, of being part of it.

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