A while ago I was thinking about the origins of the phrase ‘touch wood’ or ‘knock on wood’, and I also found ‘knock on/tap/touch wood and whistle.’ There is no one answer to the origin of the phrase, and since wood has been so universally used since the earliest days of humans, then there are likely to be many, many different and correct origins of the phrase…
Here are some:
- “pagans” believed malevolent spirits inhabited wood, so touching or knocking stopped them hearing a wish
- touching the wood of the cross
- from the early middle ages, summoners and pardoners sold relics as parts of the true cross
- some religions believe natural objects are inhabited by spirits so touching a tree brought blessings and warded off wrath.
- children’s games
- a sexual innuendo
- the phrase said while grabbing a man’s nether regions
- in 18th century auctions, when the auctioneer touched wood – i.e. when wooden gavel hit the wooden block, the lot was won
- sailors in the days of sail hoped to conjure up a wind when becalmed
- touch wood and an acorn won’t fall – meaning nothing calamitous would happen
- lumberjacks would hug a tree for a safe felling
- sailors would tap their foot on the deck of the ship
- coal miners would knock wooden roof supports as they passed it, to test it was sound
For me, ‘knock on wood‘ will always be associated with Eddie Floyd; Edward Lee Floyd was born in 1937 and is an American soul and rhythm and blues singer and songwriter. He’s most famous for being a Stax singer in the 1960’s – 1970’s. He had a number 1 song… “Knock on Wood”! Just two months ago, on 1 September 2017, at the age eighty, Eddie performed live at the Royal Albert Hall BBC Proms with Jools Holland in a tribute concert to fifty years of Stax Records.