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Knock On Wood

Posted by Admin on March 12, 2022

Have you noticed some people say something about a future occurrence followed by the expression knock on wood? If you have ever wondered what the means, that person doesn’t want to tempt fate after making a favorable claim, so they tack knock on wood to the end of their declaration. If you knock on wood, the superstition is that you should be able to avoid bad luck.

In the UK the idiom is touch wood while in the US the idiom is knock on wood but finding the origins of either idiom was wrought with all sorts of twists and turns along the way.

During the Victorian era, there was a children’s game called Tig Touch Wood which is now known as Tag. While it’s not the origin of the UK idiom, it’s an interesting fact worth keeping in mind. We will get back to this later on in this entry.

Back in the 18th century in the U.S., it was common practice for someone loading a rifle to knock on the wooden stock of that rifle to ensure the gun powder would settle properly. It increased the chances of the ensuing shot being a clean shot instead of backfiring on the shooter. But as with the Tig Touch Wood information, it’s not the origin of the US version of the idiom.

Interestingly enough, knock on wood wasn’t published in any books or magazines before 1892, but touch wood first began to appear in books in 1742, and when it did, it wasn’t the touch wood we know today.

Idiomation decided to track down the idiom touch wood first and found the Victorian era game in “The Boy’s Own Book: A Complete Encyclopedia of All the Diversions, Athletic, Scientific, and Recreative of Boyhood and Youth” compiled by William Clarke (1800 – 17 June 1838) and published in 1829 through an American publishing press, Munroe and Francis in Boston, and by Charles S. Francis in New York. The game was known as Touch and in some cases, Touch-iron or Touch wood.

It was accepted that in the North Country of England, the game of Touch Wood was known as Tig Touch Wood (mentioned earlier in this entry) — a derivative of the Saxon phrase tillan meaning to touch and ligbaere meaning flame or fiery. The game, however, was the same: Children chased after each other but were exempt by law of the game from capture while touching wood.

While that is amusing, stepping back even earlier, Idiomation learned that in the early 1800s tigwood was a rotten piece of wood used to catch the fire struck from a flint according to the Samuel Johnson and William Perry tome published in 1805 titled “The Synonymous, Etymological, and Pronouncing English Dictionary.” This is further confirmed by a poem by English poet and writer Charles Cotton (28 April 1630 – 16 February 1687) from over 150 years earlier titled, “Scarronides: Or, Virgil Travestie: A Mock Poem on the First and Fourth Books of Virgil’s Aeneid, in English Burlesque” wherein this stanza is found.

For each man had his flint and touch-wood
The world besides could shew no such wood:
The sticks they gather, leaves and briers,
And fall a making them good fires;
Then skellets, pans, and posnets put on
To make them porridge without mutton.

And in English philologist and lexicographer Nathan Bailey’s “An Universal Etymological English Dictionary” first published in 1730, touch wood is included and defined as a rotten wood for starting fires. Even the “Dictionnaire Royal François-anglois et Anglo-françois” published during that same time period agreed that Touch Wood was rotten wood used to start a fire.

Somewhere between the earlier meaning of rotten wood and the boys’ game, Touch Wood had a change of heart from being rotten wood with which to start a fire to part of the rules for playing the game, and all in the space of one generation or so it seems.

Additionally, the only good luck tied to touching wood seems to be in the children’s game more so than in starting fires.

The research took back Idiomation back to knock on wood, and in 1932, the expression was used in the Records and Briefs of the United States Supreme Court in the case between M. C. Schaefer Appellant, and Sam Macri et al Appellees, in the County of Multnomah, Oregon. Mr. Schaefer had requested and paid the official court reporter, Glen W. Walston, for three copies of a transcript of the proceedings, and upon checking the copies, he found them to be inaccurate. He brought this to the attention of the official court reporter in a letter dated, 1952. The complaint listed the series of events, including this:

You then said, ‘I’ve had an awful time on this; the girl I had on the first part of this work was drunk and we really had quite a time of it. I’ve made only one mistake in the last three years, and that wasn’t on my part; the typist typed “did” instead of “didn’t” in a brief.’ Your wife then, coming toward your office from another office, said: ‘Don’t say that; I heard that, you know what will happen when you say a thing like that.’ And you said, ‘Yes, I know, I should knock on wood. I think that should cover all the errors, and I will check my notes and write up all additional changes and mail this with the certificates to you in a few days.’

An excellent explanation of how people buy into the concept of knocking on wood being a call to good luck appeared in Volume 29 of Advertising and Selling magazine in the 15 May 1920 edition. The President of the Manternach Company, Michael C. Manternach (1884 – 3 July 1977), wrote an article titled, “Why the Summer Layoff Is Founded On Fallacy: What an Agency Head Things of the Custom of Dropping July and August Out of the Advertising Schedule.” Almost immediately, the writer took on facts and reason versus beliefs and superstition.

For instance: thousands of good, sensible American men and women “knock on wood” when sickness, loss of money or any other misfortune is mentioned. Or course, they do not really believe that “knocking on wood” can avert evil. The slightest reasoning would dispel such belief; the most superficial examination of facts would disprove it. Nevertheless, this custom positively controls the actions of thousands of sensible people because they do not submit it to the tests of reason and of fact. They “knock on wood” because others “knock on wood.”

A few years earlier in 1910, at the afternoon session of the Fifth Annual Report of the Railroad Commission of Indiana conducted by Commissioner McClure who opened the session by mentioning Item #6 on the program titled, “Whether It Is Advisable to Establish on the Railroads Committees of Safety: The Chicago and Northwestern Plan.” The plan was not original in that it was shared the plan was based on that devised by the United States Steel Corporation where the results of the plan were labeled wonderful.

Chairman Wood stated for the record that the E.J. & E. Railways had a similar safety plan, and he suggested Mr. Kirk, the representative for E.J. & E. Railway, a division of the Illinois Steel Company, enlighten everyone on their safety plan. In the transcript of this session, the following was recorded:

CHAIRMAN WOOD: Mr. Chairman, just another word. What I want to protest against is that there is so much here — there are so many fatalists amongst us. Every time I tell the superintendents about these accidents that happen they “knock on wood” but that is just about all they do. Now what Mr. Richards said about this is true and what do we do but “knock on wood.” Now can’t we do something? That is what this convention is for.

INTERESTING SIDE NOTE 1: Chairman Wood was William J. Wood, Railroad Commissioner for Evansville, and Commissioner McClure was John F. McClure, Railroad Commissioner for Anderson.

INTERESTING SIDE NOTE 2: The E.J. & E. Railway was the Elgin, Joliet and Eastern Railway that ran between Waukegan, Illinois and Gary, Indiana. The railway became part of CN (Canadian National) Railway through a merger in 2009 when it became part of its Wisconsin Central (WC) subsidiary.

The idiom was in quotation marks which indicates it wasn’t a well-known idiom among railway men at least back in 1910 however it did exist as American Folklore as mentioned in the 1892 edition of the Journal of American Folklore.

Many people will not step across a tethered cow’s rope. They will go around the cow, or lift up the rope and go under. Many will not go under a ladder, even the masons at work.

If your right hand itch, you will get money. You should knock on wood, according to the saying.

That indicates that in 1892, knocking on wood for good luck was already a saying but no matter how much research was done, Idiomation was unable to trace the idiom further back than the mention in 1892.

Some will say the expressions date back to pagan times based solely on conjecture, and others say the expression dates back to a time when people believed good spirits lived in trees. Some even believe the woodstock on a firearm mentioned previously in this entry is the origin of the idiom.

The fact of the matter is that the origin of these two idioms which are related in spirit but perhaps not in origin remain unknown at this time. Idiomation will continue to search for the definitive answer for both these idioms which appear to be related but until then, this idiom is listed as unknown.

One Response to “Knock On Wood”

  1. Terry said

    Hello – tx for the wood essay. I find that non-Europeans tend to miss the Christian ‘warding off’ or apotropaic spells: 13 at dinner, (last supper), casting salt over left shoulder (salt is expensive, so the devil will run after the salt and you are safe – see the spilled salt cellar in Da Vinci’s Last Supper, by Judas’s (left?) elbow), and knocking on the wood of the true cross (thanks, S. Helena). There isn’t much of this stuff in English, and of course 18th century contexts are modern – but if I ask Italian friends they’ll easily explain any folk activity in a Christian (meaning borrowed-from-pagan) context. If pressed about a PRE Christian origin of a spell, they will shrug, look up, and say “si, forse…”

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