Why We Knock On Wood For Luck

Why We Knock On Wood For Luck

Ever said something like, “I’ve never gotten a speeding ticket” – and then quickly, for luck, rapped your knuckles on a wooden table or doorframe?

Americans accompany this action by saying, “Knock on wood.” In Great Britain, it’s “Touch wood.” They knock on wood in Turkey, too.

As a teacher of folklore – the study of “the expressive culture of everyday life,” as my favorite short definition puts it – I’m often asked why people knock on wood.

The answer is complicated

The common explanation for knocking on wood claims the ritual is a holdover from Europe’s pagan days, an appeal to tree-dwelling spirits to ward off bad luck or an expression of gratitude for good fortune.

According to Brewer’s Dictionary of Phrase and Fable, “traditionally, certain trees, such as the oak, ash, hazel, hawthorn and willow, had a sacred significance and thus protective powers.”

Furthermore, the theory goes, Christian reformers in Europe may have deliberately transformed this heathenish belief into a more acceptable Christian one by introducing the idea that the “wood” in “knock on wood” referred to the wood of the cross of Jesus’ crucifixion.

However, no tangible evidence supports these origin stories.


 Get The Latest From InnerSelf


The Oxford English Dictionary traces the phrase “touch wood” only back to the early 19th century, locating its origins in a British children’s tag game called Tiggy-touch-wood, in which children could make themselves “exempt…from capture [by] touching wood.”

Of course, much folklore is learned informally, by word of mouth or customary behavior. So it’s possible – even likely – that the phrase and the ritual predate its first appearance in print.

So why do we still knock on wood?

I’d wager few, if any, people today think – after saying something that might bring bad luck – “I’d better ask the tree spirits for help!”

Still they knock, to avoid negative consequences.

That puts knocking on wood in a category with other “conversion rituals” like throwing salt over one’s shoulder: actions people perform, almost automatically, to “undo” any bad luck just created.

The anthropologist Bronislaw Malinowski has a theory about such actions, called the “anxiety-ritual theory.” It states that the anxiety created by uncertainty leads people to turn to magic and ritual to gain a sense of control.

Knocking on wood may seem trivial, but it is one small way people quell their fears in a life full of anxieties.

About The Author

Rosemary V. Hathaway, Associate Professor of English, West Virginia University

This article is republished from The Conversation under a Creative Commons license. Read the original article.

enafarzh-CNzh-TWnltlfifrdehiiditjakomsnofaptruessvtrvi

follow InnerSelf on

facebook-icontwitter-iconrss-icon

 Get The Latest By Email

{emailcloak=off}

FROM THE EDITORS

A Song Can Uplift the Heart and Soul
by Marie T. Russell, InnerSelf
I have several ways that I use to clear the darkness from my mind when I find it has crept in. One is gardening, or spending time in nature. The other is silence. Another way is reading. And one that…
Why Donald Trump Could Be History's Biggest Loser
by Robert Jennings, InnerSelf.com
This whole coronavirus pandemic is costing a fortune, maybe 2 or 3 or 4 fortunes, all of unknown size. Oh yeah, and, hundreds of thousands, maybe a million, of people will die prematurely as a direct…
Mascot for the Pandemic and Theme Song for Social Distancing and Isolation
by Marie T. Russell, InnerSelf
I came across a song recently and as I listened to the lyrics, I thought it would be a perfect song as a "theme song" for these times of social isolation. (Lyrics below the video.)
Letting Randy Funnel My Furiousness
by Robert Jennings, InnerSelf.com
(Updated 4-26) I have not been able to right-write a thing I am willing to publish this last month, You see I am furious. I just want to lash out.
Pluto Service Announcement
by Robert Jennings, InnerSelf.com
(updated 4/15/2020) Now that everybody has the time to be creative, there's no telling what you will find to entertain your inner self.