Knock on Wood (Origin)

by Craig Shrives

What Is the Origin of the Saying "Knock on Wood"?

The term "knock on wood" means to tap on wood to avoid bad luck. In the UK, "touch wood" is a common alternative.
Knock on Wood (Origin)
There are two versions:
  • "Knock on wood" is common in both the US and the UK.
  • "Touch wood" is common in the UK. It is more common than "knock on wood."
Both phrases originate from the Druids' belief that the good spirits lived in the trees. (Dating back to 2nd century BC, Druidism was part of Celtic and Gaulish culture across Europe.) Therefore, whenever discussing a possible outcome to a situation, it was considered good luck to tap on a tree to alert the spirits to your presence in the hope that they would support your cause.
Druids belief of spirits in trees
Despite this practice being hundreds, if not thousands, of years old, there are no records of "touch wood" being used in this context until the late 19th century, and none of "knock on wood" until the early 20th century. (This is often cited by detractors of the "Druid theory.")

The term "knock on wood" is usually accompanied by the gesture of tapping on a wooden table or door with the knuckles. The alternative "touch wood" is usually accompanied by a gesture of touching a piece of wooden furniture or your own head (a witty, self-effacing suggestion that your head is made of wood).

Competing Theory

"Touch wood" originates from the practice of touching a wooden crucifix for luck or as a reminder of God's presence.

Competing Theory

"Touch wood" originates from a school-yard game called "Tiggy Touchwood," in which those being pursued were safe from being tagged while touching wood.

Of interest, "knock on wood" is used globally:
  • "Tocar madera" (Spanish for "touch wood")
  • "Toi-toi-toi! Dreimal auf Holz! (German for "Knock-knock-knock! Three times on wood.")
  • Постучи по дереву. (Russian for "knock on wood")

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See Also

What are idioms? What is figurative language? A list of common grammar errors A list of easily confused words A list of sayings and proverbs

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