Knock Em’ Dead, Break a Leg and Other Violent Ways to Encourage People

English is like a great joke.  It works so much better if you don’t have to explain it.  

As I was leaving the office this week I said to our Chinese assistant (who was on her way to a teaching gig), “Knock Em’ Dead.”  Her eyes grew a bit and she gave her trademark, “Whaaat?” (she says that at least hourly working in an office with us).  The explanation began.

Me:  Yeah, knock em’ dead.  It means, “do a good job”

Her:  Whaaat?

Me:  You know “to knock?” It means “to hit.”  punching myself in the hand.  And em’, that’s short for them.

Her:  unconvincingly, “mmmm ok.”

Me:  And “dead”, like “to die” or “to kill”.   So . . . it’s kind of like saying . . . “hit them until they die”

Her:  blank stare 

Me:  But it really means “do a good job.” realizing as the words left my mouth that I had never once considered the violent nature of our affirming words.  So knock em’ dead and while you’re at it . . . break a leg.

Her:  Whaaat?


  1. I’m a teacher in Zhejiang and I teach a class called ‘newspaper reading.’ I had one class on comedy news in which we discussed the Onion and the Daily Show.

    I thought it was going to be great, and everyone was going to have fun, until I realized that I had to explain every. single. joke. And of course that made them totally NOT funny.

  2. Becky – Thanks for commenting. Cannot tell you how many of my best jokes are absolutely wasted in China. Try slapstick – they may not get the Onion but people slipping on a banana peel is universally funny.


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