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Kick the bucket

Q From Fred: Could you please tell me where the phrase kick the bucket originated?

A There are two main theories about this one. One suggests that the word doesn’t refer to our modern bucket at all, but to a sixteenth century word that comes from the French buque, meaning a yoke or similar piece of wood. It is said that the word was applied in particular to the beam from which a pig was hung in order to be slaughtered. Inevitably, the pig would struggle during the process, and would kick the buque.

The expression is attested to in particular by a citation in the Oxford English Dictionary: “The beam on which a pig is suspended after he has been slaughtered is called in Norfolk, even in the present day, a ‘bucket’. Since he is suspended by his heels, the phrase to ‘kick the bucket’ came to signify to die” (I can’t give you a date, as the editors just say it comes from a “modern newspaper”, a rather sniffy annotation they used a century ago for sources not considered quite kosher. But it was probably in the 1890s).

The other explanation, much less credible, is that the bucket is the one on which a suicide stands when hanging himself — kick away the bucket and the job is done. I’ve even seen the story attached specifically to the sad end of an ostler working at an inn on the Great North Road out of London. Don’t believe a word of it.

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Copyright © Michael Quinion, 1996–. All rights reserved.
Page created 27 Feb. 1999

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The English language is forever changing. New words appear; old ones fall out of use or alter their meanings. World Wide Words tries to record at least a part of this shifting wordscape by featuring new words, word histories, words in the news, and the curiosities of native English speech.

World Wide Words is copyright © Michael Quinion, 1996–. All rights reserved.
This page URL: http://www.worldwidewords.org/qa/qa-kic1.htm
Last modified: 27 February 1999.