When I was eleven or twelve some knacker walked up to me on the street, said something in Cant that I didn't understand, and punched me in the stomach. It was ideal, really: it didn't hurt very much but it allowed me not to feel bad about referring to Travellers as 'knackers', and to lustily join in with every badmouthing of them that I was every privy to. I learned quickly that, despite everyone and their dog understanding the term to be pejorative, it was nearly always completely socially accepted. Usage in front of teachers and other adults would, at worst, be met with a mild frown - the same one you might get if you said 'crap'.
I don't know how many times it took being punched by settled people for me to write that one childish tap in the gut off as part of life, rather than symbolic of the values of an entire ethnicity. I don't know exactly when I grew out of using the term 'knackers' (I suspect it was shamefully recently), but I did.
Last Saturday I read a piece in the Irish Times about the rugby players Denis Leamy and Rory Best. A puff piece, in fact, that had little to do with sport and a lot to do with the fact that the aforementioned are now 'Bushmill Brothers' (there's a remarkably similar piece in The Examiner - it seems that the edict from the marketing people was to use words like 'brothers' and 'bond' prominently, and mention the brand name at least once. Tacky. One can only hope Messrs. Thornley and Lewis got a nice case of whiskey or five for their trouble). But what was jarring was not the thinly-veiled-infomercial nature of the piece, but the part where Rory Best is asked about his BFF's playing style and says he is "a complete knacker on the pitch, as you can imagine."
Does Rory Best mean that Denis Leamy is in the habit of finding old horses on the pitch and turning them into dog food and glue? He would undoubtedly claim that he's using the word in the other sense - that of a person behaving anti-socially or thuggishly. Some say that it's an entirely separate meaning, with no reference to Travellers at all. Bock does (or did, I'll allow for the fact that that post is three years old). But most of the times I've heard people use the phrase "some knacker..." in the middle of an anecdote they will inevitably have to clarify whether they are referring to a scumbag-knacker or, you know, a knacker-knacker. The etymology of any term is a complicated thing, but there seems little doubt that its origins are connected to Travellers. The term is still heavily connected to them, in my experience.
Rory Best has always seemed like a decent enough skin, but he might want to think again about publicly using a term that is highly offensive to an entire culture, even if a lot of people use it freely. They used 'nigger' freely, too, once. If he must use it in the context of Bushmills Brotherly Bonding Banter, then perhaps the Irish Times might think a little more carefully about publishing it, and potentially perpetuating its use among the thousands who will have read that article. Twenty percent would deny citizenship to them, remember, lest we claim that Ireland doesn't have a problem with Travellers. Perhaps they'll redact it later, as they do.