Bookshelp header image for page World Wide Words logo

Touch wood/knock on wood

Q From Mike Gast: What is the origin and true meaning of knock on wood or touch wood?

A To touch wood or knock on wood is a superstitious action to ward off any evil consequences or bad luck, perhaps because of some recent action you’ve taken or untimely boasting about your good fortune (“I’ve never been in danger of drowning, touch wood”); it can also be a charm to bring good luck.

The origin is unknown, though some writers have pointed to pre-Christian rituals involving the spirits of sacred trees such as the oak, ash, holly or hawthorn. There is, I’m told, an old Irish belief that you should knock on wood to let the little people know that you are thanking them for a bit of good luck. There’s also a belief that the knocking sound prevents the Devil from hearing your unwise comments. Others have sought a meaning in which the wood symbolises the timber of the cross, but this may be a Christianisation of an older ritual. It wasn’t always wood that was lucky: in older days, iron was also thought to have magical properties, and to touch iron was an equivalent preventative against ill-fortune.

The phrase itself is relatively modern, as the oldest citation for the British version of the phrase, touch wood, that I can find dates only from 1899. The American equivalent knock on wood is roughly contemporary, with my first example from 1905.

Share this page
Facebook Twitter StumbleUpon Google+

Search World Wide Words

Support World Wide Words!

Donate via PayPal. Select your currency from the list and click Donate.


Buy from Amazon and get me a small commission at no cost to you. Select your preferred site and click Go!

OTHER WAYS TO HELP

Copyright © Michael Quinion, 1996–. All rights reserved.

Page created 30 Jan. 1999
Last updated 31 May 2005

Advice on copyright

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-tou1.htm
Last modified: 31 May 2005.