Thursday 4 February 2010

What are the origins of 'touch wood'?

John asked the Bad Witch:

What is the origin of the phrase "touch wood"?

One of the most common superstitions in England is to say "touch wood" when we think we have tempted fate.

We say it in the belief that touching wood will bring us a little bit of extra luck so that some hoped-for thing we have been talking about will come true. There is also just a little fear that, having said "touch wood", if we don't find any real wood to touch we will instead incur bad luck. Wood-effect plastic just isn't the same.

Folklorist Steve Roud in his book The Penguin Guide to the Superstitions of Britain and Ireland points out that English people don't like to boast, and so sometimes say "touch wood" to add a little humility to conversations and balance the minor social transgression of talking about achievements.

He also points out that touching wood is so common that we do it without thinking. It has become so much a part of our everyday lives and speech that it is almost an involuntary action rather than a real belief on the part of many people.

The origins of the phrase "touch wood" have stirred quite a lot of speculation. The two most common beliefs are that it either comes from pre-Christian pagan rituals involving the spirits of sacred trees or from Christian beliefs that touching the wood of a cross can avert all ills.

The problem with both of these suggestions, however, is that there is no documentary evidence of the phrase being used thousands of years ago. In fact, historical examples of the phrase being used in exactly the way we mean it today only date back to Victorian times.

Steve Roud believes that "touch wood" comes from a children's game known as Tig-Touch-Wood that was popular around the early 19th century. This is a chasing game in which players are only safe if they are touching wood.

But that might not be the last word on the subject. Wikipedia points out that the belief in touching wood - or knocking on wood - to bring luck is common to people all over the world. The children's game, on the other hand, was really only played in parts of England.

In America, people say "knock on wood"; in the Arab world "imsek el-khashab" apparently has a similar meaning; in Bulgaria they say "chukam na durvo", in Brazil they say "bater na madeira" and in France they say "toucher du bois". These are just a few of the examples worldwide.

Website believes the superstition definitely pre-dates the playtime activity. It points to a tradition dating from the 1500s in which Jews would knock a code onto the wooden doors of safe havens order to be let inside to avoid persecution.

So, ancient pagan ritual or just a children's game? What do you think? If you have any further insights into the origin of touching wood for luck, leave a comment below.

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The Penguin Guide to the Superstitions of Britain and Ireland


Antony said...

Wow thank you once again Bad Witch for another informative post.

Fancy doing one on Voodo? A pagan friend of mine is in to it and I don't know much about it. Do you?

Hugs as always,

A x

Badwitch said...

I'll certainly try to write something about Voodo. Thanks for asking.