Tuesday, July 21, 2009

Knock on Wood


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?


52 comments:

  1. Hi,

    Nowadays, although rare, people do use that expression here in Portugal.
    But a few years ago I guess that it wasn't something common, or at least I never noticed.
    Some uses are brought through media and become part of our lives.
    Who knows if in a few years we won't be saying "Knock on LCD" :-)

    Best regards,

    José

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  2. Interesting! It's always fun to learn the origins of expressions we use routinely. Fascinating all the different variations on the same theme, isn't it!?

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  3. very cool posting willow! i say "touch wood" . . .and the mere act of touching something wooden is meant to help ensure that something stays the same or happens or doesn't happen. in other words, i hope that touching something wooden grants my wish. like - "would somebody make me a bowl of plum crumble with clotted cream please . . .touch wood"!! have a lovely dinner!!! steven

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  4. that was very interesting! nowdays it is a common sight to watch folks stopping mid conversation to hunt about for a bit of wood to touch! love the song

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  5. Thanks for that Willow. I always enjoy learning about how and where phrases come from.

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  6. Wonderfully instructive. Thanks for that Willow.

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  7. Wow! Thanks for all the information, it is so cool you were curious to do all that research just based on one little phrase, my husband is from Bulgaria, and they are very funny about some things. The first time I went to visit, I quickly learned never to put my purse on the floor, as this would guarantee I would not become rich! All the women quickly corrected me the first time I went to set my purse down! - Amy

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  8. Oh my, what would these people do when they'd see me knock on the side of my head? Wonder if that's strictly an American way? Not tied to old country ways, knowing most of us have heads as thick as wood, I just always give myself a rap. Explains a lot. I probably have termites.

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  9. Interesting. I do usually want to find out the derivations of these common sayings, but for some reason that is one I have never inquired into. Thanks for the info'.

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  10. This reminds me of the David Sedaris essay on Christmas. Have you heard that? Hilarious. It seems when he travels to other countries he always asks them, "What do your roosters say?". He gets the most wonderfully funny replies!

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  11. I have always used that expression to keep bad things at bay! Example: I hope I don't get sick..knock on wood.

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  12. interesting bit of history on the phrase...think if i knock loud enough Keebler would share a cookie?

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  13. Interesting write-up--& that's from an inveterate wood-knocker!

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  14. At work we're always running around looking for actual wood (instead of particle board desks) & usually just end up knocking on our heads!

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  15. Fascinating post Willow! I always use this expression and yes - if no wood is around will tap the side of my head. The Gods must think we are such silly fools at times! xx

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  16. Thanks for the insight, and for doing the homework! -Jayne

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  17. You are so full of information and brilliance! I always learn something here ... and just when I thought I knew it all. (ha!)

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  18. Hi Willow

    and there is the Nitty Gritty Dirt Band with 'Its a new day... everything is wonderful...
    knock on wood...


    Happy Days

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  19. Cool! Great info (what's the point of knocking on wood if the devil can see you do it?); great clip. I love Casablanca. But I have to know: what is the new top photo on your sidebar? Staircase? Captain's wheel?

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  20. In Italy we say "toccare legno" (knock on wood) too. "Toccare ferro" is more usual.

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  21. That's such a well thought out and researched post. I tend to avoid superstition of any sort, that frees one up, yet always find the ritualistic aforementioned or "fingers crossed" odd in how people do it without thinking.

    I like your intriguing header, very unique and hope to come by again. "Casablanca" is still dramatic; most of the films on your list are ones I go back to often.

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  22. MY contribution !
    I always thought it was to do with wooden coffins?I never realised how universal the expression was.

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  23. Thanks for the reminder of a great song and movie.

    When I walk the dog I sometimes have to touch wood before I turn around and head for home, sometimes a tree, a gate or a post. I hate turning for home without a touch post!

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  24. Well there you go. No wonder it never worked for me. The spirits were watching as I knocked on top of the table. You can bet in the future I'll reach underneath where the gum wads dwell before knocking. Thanks for the info. Pappy

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  25. Way back when I was walking a mile to school in the country, "knock on wood" was what one said when he knocked on someone's head.

    Be part of history. Become a Follower or leave a comment. Tell you friends. Link up. Pick a Peck of Pixels

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  26. Hi DS, the pic on the top of my sidebar is the front staircase at Willow Manor.

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  27. So interesting. I say knock on wood often and usually knock on the top of any wood item nearby. I love reading the world-wide variations and origins.

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  28. 'they actually knock underneath the table'

    We do this in Cuba! I thought we were the only ones. Is that a relic from socialism, then :-D?

    And don't you just love the contrast between Dooley Wilson's wide grin and Humphrey Bogart's frown? This is the movie I have to watch at least once a year. Don't even ask me why, I just have to. Many thanks, willow, for such an informative and thoughtful post.

    Greetings from London.

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  29. Hi Willow,we do it too in France.It becomes a reflex.Really interesting post!

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  30. Great post! My husband and I were having a conversation about superstitions surrounding salt the other day. It's interesting because he's from Colombia, and I'm from the US, but both cultures have salt-related beliefs and superstitions.

    It's so neat to see how many cultures have variations of the "knock on wood" concept. I love the Bulgarian one about knocking under the table! Clever!

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  31. Hello ~Willow,

    I would always "touch wood" and, even if there's wood handy, I would often touch my own head (no comments please!)

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  32. Fascinating ... you could rename your blog 'a fascinating fact a day'

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  33. Willow, one of the games we played, when I lived in Germany was a form of tag; where the tagger was known as the "Teufel" or "Teu" for short( sounds the same as "toi" ); "Teufel" meaning "Devil". How-ever, if you were being chased by the Teufel, you could avoid a "tag" by finding and hugging( or touching )the nearest tree( the wood ), while chanting "Teu, Teu, Teu, du hast mir nichts"( devil, you don't have me! ). You were safe and the Teufel had to go look for another "victim"( see what memories your posts trigger? )

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  34. Good information. I am the family reminder to 'knock on wood'...sometimes we have to look around for some wood...plastic does not count!

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  35. Thought of you instantly Willow when I read about this new book - an essential collection of the world's most colourful put downs - Appealing equally to the linguist and the language-lover. Your post today reminded me.

    More tips & treats from the Gang
    at 29 Black Street. xo S.

    funnywww.elwinstreet.com/book.php?id=22

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  36. I find it fascinating willow that the same saying is used in so many different countries - how did this evolve I wonder.

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  37. Thanks for answering my question, willow. It's what I thought, but you are so sly, I had to be sure ;)
    Regardless, it's a beautiful shot, and a beautiful staircase.

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  38. Melting lead into Satan's ear..I love that one..
    The secrets hidden in superstition give dimension to our lives. A
    19th century children's game really doesn't explain the universality of the phrase...
    Continued good fortune(knock on wood)!

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  39. What can I say? I just love your blog!

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  40. Great post Willow! It's fascianting how wide spread these kinds of superstitions can be. I always knock wood, and have always thought you need to do it three times - three knocks - when you do it.

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  41. Thanks for the Casablanca excerpt! I never cease to get a kick out of the musicians hitting themselves in the head.

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  42. In Greece we say "htipa ksilo" (knock on wood) and when we don't have a wood to knock on...well...we knock on somebody's head :)

    xoxo

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  43. Great clip and I'm one of those who thought the wood reference was to the crucifix

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  44. How very, very interesting!

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  45. Interesting post made all the nicer by the video. Nicely done!

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  46. Just be sure to stay away from the Evil Eye!

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  47. In Spain and in Cuba: "Toca Madera" is used to ward off bad luck.

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  48. Based on the fact that countries all over the world have similar expressions, I'd say the tradition is much older than the historians are willing to admit.

    I really enjoy learning the history of language. Thanks

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  49. I'm not SUPERstitious, I'm just ALITTLEstitious. I don't have to knock on wood, but I make sure to knock on something... just to be safe ;)

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Inject a few raisins of conversation into the tasteless dough of existence.
― O. Henry (and me)