Historically Speaking

Making sense of it all!

Kick The Bucket

Posted by Elyse Bruce on November 4, 2014

If someone has kicked the bucket, they have shuffled off this mortal coil and gone on to the afterlife.  Yes, when someone kicks the bucket, they have died.

Some will tell you that it’s a reference to the days when someone intent on committing suicide would stand on a bucket, slip the noose around his or her neck, and then literally kick the bucket.  Some will tell you that it’s a reference to the bucket of holy water that was placed at the feet of a corpse that had been laid out for viewing.  And some will say that back in the sixteenth century the beam from which a butchered pig was hung was called a buquet (not to be confused with a bouquet which is an arrangement of flowers).  So where did the idiom come from since there are so many different stories about its origins?

If you believe the Spokane Daily Chronicle of May 30, 1911, the expression comes from England and first appeared in print in 1725.  The news bite alleged the following:

… it dates back to Old England, when about the year 1725, one Balsover hanged himself to a beam while standing on the bottom of a bucket, and then kicked the bucket away, says the New York Times.

It was a believable explanation because three years later on November 26, 1914, the Toledo Blade newspaper carried an almost identical explanation to the question:  What is the origin of the saying “to kick the bucket?”

Now, where the New York Times got the story back in 1911 is unclear, however, the Meriden Daily Republican published a similar story in July 20, 1880 edition of their newspaper, so the story was circulating long before the New York Times grabbed hold of it.  It could be because the Boston Evening Transcript of January 24, 1878 used the term in this clever bit of reporting.

Ah Chung, a San Francisco murderer, has kicked the bucket, literally as well as metaphorically.  On Jan. 13 a prison-keeper found him hanging by the neck in his cell.  He had passed a cord through the air-holes at the back of his cell, fastened that end, and made a noose of the other end, put out the gas, and planted himself upon a water bucket.  Then he kicked the bucket.

The expression was used in jokes published in a number of magazines and newspapers in the early 1800s, oftentimes recounted as such:

Two gentlemen were walking in the High-street, Southampton, last week, about that hour which the industrious damsels of the mop and brush usually devote to cleansing the pavement before the door.  It happened that the bucket used upon such occasions was upon the stones, and one of the gentlemen stumbled against it.
“My dear friend,” exclaimed the other, “I lament your death exceedingly!”
“My death!”
“Yes, you have just kicked the bucket.”
“Not so,” rejoined his friend.  “I have only turned a little pale (pail).”

The idiom was also found in the “Standard Recitations for the Use of Catholic Colleges, Schools and Literary Societies” published in 1800.  The following was determined appropriate recitation for junior pupils.

He never did a decent thing
He was’t worth a ducat;
He kicked and kicked until he died,
And then he kicked the bucket.

In Francis Grose’s 1785 edition of the “Classical Dictionary of the Vulgar Tongue” the definition for kick the bucket is as follows.

To die.  He kicked the bucket one day; he died one day.  To kick the clouds before the hotel door; i.e. to be hanged.

It would seem that kicking and buckets and death have had a long association, as the spirit of the expression is found in William Shakespeare’s Play “Henry IV Part II” in Act IV, Scene 2.  The play was published in 1597.  Bear in mind that a gibbet meant to hang.

Here shall charge you, and discharge you with the motion of a pewterer’s hammer; come off, and on, swifter then the gibbets on the brewer’s bucket.

When you look at gibbets (to hang) and bucket in this context, it’s all about dying.  Whether it’s about an animal being slaughtered or a person committing suicide, the beam (or bucket, as the beam was called) is what ties them together.

Idiomation therefore pegs this idiom to the mid-1500s since it was used with such ease by William Shakespeare.

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2 Responses to “Kick The Bucket”

  1. I stumbled upon your wonderful blog and just wanted to tell you that I find it fascinating! Thank you for your wonderful and very intriguing posts!

    • Thanks for stopping by and leaving a message. The Idiomation blog has been around since January 2010 when I started it to help my autistic son who was in Grade 9 and struggling with expressions his peers and teachers were using. It grew from there as more and more people came to the blog looking to learn more about the meaning and history of specific idioms. Nearly five years later, I still enjoy doing the research. If you have any idioms you’re wondering about, just let me know, and I’ll see what I can dig up. 🙂

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