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Knee-jerk, kneejerk

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  • Knee-jerk, which usually functions as a phrasal adjective (and is hyphenated), is synonymous with automatic, unthinking, reflexive, and instantaneous. The term was coined in the late 19th century, and it refers to the human knee’s reflexive jerk when struck. As an adjective describing a human feeling or action, it usually denotes one’s initial, unthinking response to something, but it can also describe a response so habitual that one no longer thinks about it.

    Knee-jerk is so useful that it’s on its way to becoming an unhyphenated compound word. For now, British writers use kneejerk more than anyone else—about a third as often as knee-jerk—while American, Canadian, and Australian writers lag in making the change.

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    Examples

    I’m neither a fan nor an opponent GMO foods, but knee-jerk opposition to all GMOs doesn’t make any sense. [Forbes]

    In a kneejerk reaction to the Bellfield case, we now face calls for a “rebalancing” of a trial system that is said to favour the accused. [Guardian]

    The trouble is that sterling is so vulnerable that the knee-jerk reaction to any bad news is a sharp sell-off. [Telegraph]

    It is a kind of kneejerk reaction to call it cynical when the U.S. rattles sabres only for oil-producing countries. [National Post]

    There is a knee-jerk inclination to compare the merit of women’s sports with men’s sports and find the female version wanting. [Globe and Mail]

    Aspen, for all the kneejerk snark that we can shower on a gathering of wealthy people in one of the most beautiful places in the world, is about shoring up that ideal. [The Atlantic]

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