~ Or: Superstitions are weird and so are we but we still like us anyway

There is no effective way to count the number of times I’ve said “knock on wood” while rapping on the top of my noggin.  “YES HA HA THE BALD GUY IS FUNNY HE BONKS HIS HEAD AND SAYS KNOCK ON WOOD TO IMPLY THAT HIS HEAD IS MADE OF THE FIBROUS DENSITY AFFORDED BY THE GROWING TREES OF OUR EARTH PLANET.”

Sometimes I think I’m funny.  My oldest child even giggled when I read the above all-caps statement to her.  But you get the idea.

To knock on wood is a phrase that goes back a couple of moons.  Less of an idiom and more of a superstition.  Unless you’re searching Google.  Then it’s either one or the other.  But I have opinions about that and we’re going to call it a superstition here.  Besides, my list of idioms to research is immense already.  Adding another one could tip the scales and capsize the ship.  And Leonardo DiCaprio isn’t anywhere to be found to help me get onto some floating debris and make it to safety.

Where was I?

Oh yeah.  The the knock on wood superstition.  And not the ivory keys Stevie Wonder plays when singing the song Superstition.  And since Amii Stewart refers to it as a superstition in a song she vocalized, that’s where we’re gonna stay.

So let’s look at the possible reasons that we today will knock on wood.  In the superstitious context.  Not the “please allow me to enter your domicile” sense.

(how many times can one writer derail himself in a single section…)

Modern usage of Knock on Wood

To knock on wood can be done in more than one context, surprisingly enough.  I thought it a way to ward off bad luck after saying something in the hopes of a success of some kind.  A means by which we prevent the sweet taste of specific continued good luck being sullied by the æffliction of ill tidings, rendering it inhospitable to our pie holes.

I was surprised to find that some folks will “knock on wood” in an effort to bring forth good luck specifically, rather than solely to fend off the bad after being all braggy and stuff.  The act being an effort to conjure a universal power to smile upon the fates and nudge things in their direction.  Like taking the movie “Luck” but manipulating things directly and bypassing the whole system instead of letting the universe happen by chance, the way it is meant to be.

Some knock on wood immediately after receiving good fortune. A hybrid of hoping for continued good luck, giving thanks for the present good luck, and “PLEASE FOR THE LOVE OF ALL THAT IS HOLY DON’T TAKE IT AWAY FROM ME.”

That is a short answer of why it is that we knock on wood.  To invoke upcoming or continued goodness and fend away the bad stuff.  Does it work?  THAT sounds like another blog topic about the psychological effect of superstitions and their anticipated results.  A double-blind controlled study on wood knockers compared to the hands off, documenting how many more good luck tokens are distributed to the wood knockers vs the “we stay away from disturbing the fibers” contingent.

It also sounds like work.  Allergies.  Also expensive and not particularly fiscally responsible.  I know.  Nobody ever accused me of being fun.  Ask my kids.

To Knock on Wood a Bit Further Back in History

Let’s go on a journey!  From the comfort and confines of my own home in the Pacific Northwest of the United States, we have to cross the eastern pond to the United Kingdom to get a closer look at some of the theories on the origin of this superstition.  The British version of this superstition is worded differently.  As are many things compared to here.

Over there, our cookies are their biscuits.  Our fries are their chips.  Chips here are crisps there.  Our flavor is their flavour.  Over here, we knock on wood.  Over there, they “touch wood.”

It certainly seems more proper than our more barbaric version, right?  Over here we rap our knuckles on top of the wooden surface and make a bunch of noise.  Potentially damage the finish of the furniture.  Over there?  They are content to gently place one appendage or another upon the woody plane.  No need for noise or violence.  It just seems more polite a way to ward off bad spirits and harvest the good.

Having established current practice, let’s jump back a bit to one possible theory.

It’s like tag.  Sorta.

Steve Roud, an individual of British influence who identifies as a folklorist*, penned a book by the name of “The Lore of the Playground.”  Within the confines of this book, he attempts to trace the origin of wood touching to that of a children’s game.  “Tiggy Touchwood” was the name of the 19th century game and involved the touching of a tree or fence or door or signpost or produce stand to be “safe.”  The equivalent of what we call “base.”  Except base is anywhere and everywhere because wood is moderately prevalent as both a natural resource and a building product.

Can you imagine being in a game of Tiggy Touchwood and needing to find someone who is not “safe” under those circumstances?  Unless you’re in some kind of open rugby field without growing things the chances are high that it’s going to be frustrating for the entity who happens to be “it.”

Mr. Roud goes on to say:

“Given that the game was concerned with ‘protection,’ and was well known to adults as well as children, it is almost certainly the origin of our modern superstitious practice of saying, ‘Touch wood,’” he argues. “The claim that the latter goes back to when we believed in tree spirits is complete nonsense.”

It seems that he is trying to indicate that the origin of the phrase starts with this game.  It also kinda buries the lede of the next section where we go into possible ancient theories.  My apologies, Mr. Roud.  I’m going to fly in the face of your claims for just a bit here.

But really.  Most children’s games like that are based on something, right?  The idea that the game invented “safety via means of wood” doesn’t quite ring as an end-all be-all explanation for the origin of the idea.  So on we go to ancient history.

*side note: seriously, can you imagine having a career where you can tell people that you are a “folklorist?”  That’s like … the best sounding career of all time.  When I grow shorter, I want to spend time being a folklorist so that I can say I did it.

The Ancient Art of Knock on Wood

So here we are going much deeper into the wayback machine.  Let’s take a look at the life of the pagan.

(no, not Richard Garriott’s “Ultima VIII: Pagan” pagan, but actual pagans.  End nerd alert.)

Once upon a time, pagans had a habit – figuratively, not literally – of worshiping spirits expected to be living within the confines of trees.  This is a tradition that we are not entirely unfamiliar with in our year to year, really.  In those somewhat forgotten days, pagan worshipers believed that evergreen trees would keep away ailments, witches, spooks, and other evil spirits.  Which is ironic given what we know about All Hallows Eve.

But anyway.

The trees that decorate homes of Christians celebrating Christmas are directly tied to that pagan custom.  Somewhere in the mid 1700s there was a little bit of custom thievery involved and the next thing we knew, we now have Christmas Trees.  (ALSO another possible blog topic for another day)

We also have tinsel.  Cheerio strings.  Star Wars ornaments.  You get the idea.  We won’t stop to note that there were no Christmas Trees at the birthplace in question.

Global Phenomenon

(doot doooooooo doo-doo dooo)

Using the spirits in trees to fend off evil things is not a concept exclusive to the life of pagan everyday living.  Many indigenous peoples from all over the world throughout history have some form of spirit worship where trees are involved.  These cultures all seem to have their own version of using a form of wood and an action in order to keep nefarious spirits at bay.  Many are still in use today.  Here are some examples:

  • Russians and Ukranians have Postuchats po derevy / Постучать по дереву which means “To knock on wood” and holds the same luck-preserving properties as we know.
  • The old Yugoslavian region has a similar version of da kucnem u drvo / да куцнем у дрво “I will knock on wood”.
  • In Egypt, emsek el-khashab (“hold the wood”) means either good luck from the past or hopes of good luck in the future.
  • Medieval England had knights who would stop by the wooden effigy of the Southwark Cathedral knight and literally touch its nose for luck.  That effigy is still there.  Go on, go touch its nose.  I dare you.  I’ll wait.
  • Modern Greece has χτύπα ξύλο / chtýpa xýlo (“knock on wood”) which is said upon hearing something negative said in order to stop it from taking place.
  • Sweden gets an award for effort with their peppar, peppar, ta i trä / pepper, pepper, touch wood for throwing pepper over the shoulder and touching something wooden.

The list is extensive and definitely lends to the idea that the notion of wood knocking is a migratory term.  The ways in which it has evolved over the years based on culture is a fascinating look at how region and language influence concepts.

This is the end (knock on wood)

So here we are!  What have we learned today?

First of all, there isn’t any one answer.

Enough cultures have some form of it or another from all over the globe that there’s no way any one explanation can fit the bill.  Our “knock on wood” on this side of the pond is similar to “touch wood” over there, but the origins are different.  Take this knowledge and couple it with similarities the world over.  The idea that it is based on a child’s play game starts to fall apart.

Secondly, it’s kinda fun to do.  Because everybody likes to belong.

It’s almost an individualized group activity.  You can’t cross the street without walking into at least three people who participate in this practice.

Finally, it’s harmless.  It’s not likely to influence the universe one way or another.  It doesn’t hurt, either.  Unless you REALLY LAY INTO that plank with your knuckles.  But it’s ok.  Not even first aid is necessary.  Maybe not even second or third aid.

Whatever the origins, it’s a part of our current culture right now.  Like Christmas trees.  And delicious beach burgers.

But to this day I’ve yet to ever play a proper game of Tiggy Touchwood.  Need to add that to the bucket list.  Because seriously.  Whether the game is fun or not doesn’t even matter.  The name is 90% of the fun.  Who wants to join me in a rousing game of Tiggy Touchwood?  COME ON!  WHO’S WITH ME!?!?  IT’S EXTREME TIGGY TOUCHWOOD TIME!!!!


Until next week.

-= george =-



Are we having fun yet?

About the Author

Straddling the line between the arts - voiceover, music composition, session performer, album mixing - and the world of durable medical equipment. Probably should have spent more time playing on the balance beam as a kid instead of obsessing over Commodore 64 games.

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