WT recently informed me that in Bulgaria, when someone says "knock on wood", they actually knock underneath the table, in order to hide it from the fates, or powers that be. I was fascinated by this little twist on the theme and had to find out more about this familiar expression.
Knocking on wood, and the spoken phrase "knock on wood" or "touch wood" are used to express a desire to avoid tempting fate after making some boast or speaking of one's own death. The expression is usually used in the hope that a good thing will continue to occur after it has been acknowledged. So, for example, one might say: "The rain looks like it's holding off, touch wood", or "Knock on wood, I'm feeling much better now."
It is commonly thought that knocking on wood has been a superstitious action to ward off evil throughout history involving Pagan belief systems. The same reference claims that knocking on wood is also used in some form of Christianity, but in a different context, where the wood represents the cross. In an alternate explanation, the wood represents the rosary. "Lord willing" is also a common expression in Christian circles, with a similar intent.
Another explanation for this practice is the pagan belief that spirits or dryads lived in trees. By knocking on the wood of a tree while making some sort of a bold statement, the speaker could prevent the spirit from hearing them and stop the spirit from interfering. Or out of respect for the wood spirit, touching a tree indicated seeking protection from the particular spirit. Hmm. I wonder if Keebler got their marketing idea from this?
Some historians believe the saying cannot be traced beyond children's games of tag of the early nineteenth century. They maintain the earliest documented references to "touching wood" are
from 1805 and 1828 and concern chasing games where you are safe from being "tagged" if you "touch wood". "'Tiggy-touch-wood" was an extremely well-known game, and it is more than likely that the phrase was passed into everyday language. Funny, we as kids, over one hundred years later, still always chose a tree as "base".
Here are some interesting international variations:
Denmark: "bank under bordet" (knock under the table).
Germany: the version "auf Holz klopfen" (knock on wood) can be accompanied by the phrase "Toi, toi, toi" (probably derived from the Old German word for 'Devil') which is still used as a charm to ward off evil or as a good luck charm for thespians out of superstition that wishing an actor good luck brings the opposite. I'm familiar with this one from the opera world.
Italy: a similar superstition exists, it's said "Toccare ferro" and the meaning is similar: one must touch metal, preferably iron.
Norway: the term "bank i bordet" ("knock the table" or rather: "knock the wooden board" ('bordet' is an ambiguity)), is used. In Norway, it is also sometimes used to stress that you're telling the truth (akin to saying "I swear to god that...").
Sweden: the phrase "ta i trä" (touch wood) is commonly used as a part of the phrase "peppar peppar, ta i trä" (pepper pepper, touch wood), the double "pepper" also being used to ward off a temptation of fate. It's often shortened to just saying "peppar peppar" while knocking on wood.
Turkey: "tahtaya vur" (knock on wood) is used. Usually, someone else will answer: "Şeytan kulağına kurşun" (May somebody melt some lead into Satan's ear).
India: it's said as "Nazar Na Lage" (let there be no evil eye), in Hindi and the meaning is similar; it is used, when something seems too good. It's like saying "touch wood", "Kannu pada
Pooguthu" (let there be no evil eye), in Tamil.
And of course, this post would not be complete without my favorite "knock on wood" song! Now, who's lucky?