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What Is a "Knight in Shining Armor"?

By J.E. Holloway
Updated May 23, 2024
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"Knight in shining armor" is an idiomatic English expression describing a heroic rescuer. The term has its roots in romantic depictions of knighthood in the Middle Ages, particularly stories and poems relating to the legendary British hero King Arthur. This expression seems to have originated in the late 18th century, if not before, although its figurative meaning became more common during the 19th century. It is equally common in both British and American English, although the British spelling of "armor" is "armour."

The first recorded version of the phrase occurs in a 1790 satirical poem by English poet Henry Pye. Pye's poem contains the phrase "the knight, in shining armour dress'd." Although this may be the origin of the phrase, at this point it is simply a description of an idealized age of chivalry rather than a stock phrase. Pye's poem, however, relied on the romantic associations which would make the saying popular.

The term "knight" derives from "cnicht," an Old English word which originally meant nothing more than a young man. By the Middle Ages, however, it had become the English equivalent of the French "chevalier," a term which likewise originally meant only a horseman but came to have more complicated social meanings. "Knight" came to indicate a social class, as well as the virtues of chivalry. Chivalry was a code of behavior under which knights were expected to demonstrate courage, courtesy, piety, generosity and other virtues. Medieval literature portrayed knights not only as warriors, but also as heroic defenders of the innocent and paragons of virtue, an image which experienced a revival in the Romantic art and literature of the 19th century.

This romantic conception of chivalry lies behind the expression. The person described as a "knight in shining armor" is being characterized as a heroic rescuer. This can be the case even in small matters. A person who brings a coworker a cup of coffee at a crucial moment might be described as a "knight in shining armor." The comparison expresses gratitude in a slightly exaggerated way, using comedy to defuse the minor social awkwardness involved.

"Knight in shining armor" is often used as a negative comparison. Many modern speakers see the image of the chivalrous hero as a corny stereotype, an unrealistic standard for the complexities of real life. "I may not be a knight in shining armor..." is a common form of negative comparison.

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Discussion Comments
By discographer — On Jul 24, 2012

@burcidi, @feruze-- I don't think the meaning has changed that much. It's still mainly means a man that comes to the help of another. I've never heard anyone refer to a woman as a knight in shining armor, have you?

The most famous use of the idiom has to be when a man saves a woman from danger and protects her. So it has a romantic aspect to it too in its modern use.

When my boyfriend helps me with something, small or big, I tell him he's my knight in shining armor. I think he likes that a lot.

By bear78 — On Jul 24, 2012

@burcidi-- Well, isn't that the case with many English idioms? That's why they're called idioms, none of them retain their original meaning and have come to mean something else.

To me, a knight in shining armor is anything and anyone that saves the moment. If you're really tired and sleepy, coffee becomes the knight in shining armor. Someone that solves a problem for you also becomes a knight in shining armor. The other day, I heard someone use the idiom when talking about a herb that resolved their health problem. So the herb is their knight in shining armor.

It doesn't mean that the thing or the person is the best or most virtuous ever. It just means that it has served a purpose and has saved the person from whatever problem they had at that time.

By burcidi — On Jul 23, 2012

I think this phrase has been simplified and changed way too much. Anyone or anything can be labeled as "a knight in shining armor" these days depending on a specific situation. Like the example the article gave, just a cup of coffee could be enough for someone to win that title. I know it's often used in good humor, but it's still unfortunate that the title has transformed to this.

In history it was not like that at all. Being a knight in shining armor was a very prestigious thing and not everyone could live up to that title. They had to have many qualities and accomplishments.

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