Slavery is mentioned in the Oxford English Dictionary entry for that usage of the phrase, but some online discussions of it appear to be based on a misunderstanding of what it says.
Did the phrase "knocked up" come from slavery, as a viral tweet claimed? We were asked by several Snopes readers about it and found the claim to be false.
A Dec. 10, 2022, Twitter post claimed, for example: "The phrase 'knocked up,' referring to pregnancy, originated with U.S. slavery. The tweet continued: "The Oxford English Dictionary traces the expression back to 1813."
The phrase "knocked up," referring to pregnancy, originated with U.S. slavery. The Oxford English Dictionary traces the expression back to 1813.
Back then the price of enslaved African women was "knocked up" by the auctioneer when she was pregnant—promoted as a deal for buyers.
— johnathan (@JohnathanPerk) December 10, 2022
The tweet further claimed the term came from the price of enslaved women being increased at slave auctions as a "deal" when they were pregnant, as the women's children would have inherited their enslaved status.
The tweet had nearly 30,000 likes on Twitter when we last checked it. It was reposted on Instagram by Soledad O'Brien, who has over 500,000 followers on Instagram. Similiar claims have also been posted on platforms like TikTok. We reached out to the person who posted the original tweet and will update this check if we hear back.
It is true that enslaved women were often impregnated by their owners. Nonprofit organization Encyclopedia Virginia wrote, "Historians disagree about how systemic forced reproduction was, but it is clear from oral histories and other firsthand accounts that enslavers did engage in the practice." According to the same source, historians question if any of these relationships could be consensual.
The Oxford English Dictionary (OED) does indeed trace the earliest published instance of the phrase used in that sense back to 1813, but the specific reference given for that date doesn't mention slavery.
Instead, the 1813 reference is from a diary written by Caleb Earle, a New Jersey company clerk. It said, "April 12, 1813 — William Mick's widow arrived here in pursuit of J. Mick, who she says knocked her up."
The next reference given for the phrase in the OED entry does mention slavery. In the 1836 book "Col. Crockett's Exploits and Adventures in Texas," frontiersman Davey Crockett quoted a fictional character as saying, "N---er women are knocked down by the auctioneer, and knocked up by the purchaser."
Crockett's use of "knocked up" demonstrates that the phrase was already being used about pregnancy before he used it about slavery over two decades later.
The OED entry states the opposite of what the Twitter post said about the auctioneer. The tweet claimed the price of enslaved women who were pregnant was "knocked up by the auctioneer" in order to make a deal. The example in the OED entry says enslaved women, not their prices, were "knocked down by the auctioneer" (emphasis added).
Other sources dedicated to the history of words, like the Online Etymology Dictionary, list the 1813 New Jersey reference as the earliest known source for the term. "Knocked down" has historically been a term used to refer to any item of property sold to the highest bidder in an auction. It's still used that way today.
We reached out to several experts about the claim, as well as the etymologies of these two expressions, and will update this check with any additional information we learn.
The OED entry was neither the origin of the claim, nor supports it. Because the primary points of the claim aren't supported by the evidence provided, and because other available evidence indicates it's erroneous, we have rated this claim "False."