Knocking on wood

Knocking on wood

Knocking on wood, and the spoken expression "knock on wood" or "touch wood" are used to express a desire to avoid "tempting fate" after making some boast or speaking of one's own death.

The expression is usually used in the hope that a good thing will continue to occur after it has been acknowledged. So, for example, one might say: "The rain looks like it's holding off, "touch wood", or "Knock on wood", I'm much better now."

Brief History

It is commonly thought that knocking on wood has been a superstitious action to ward off evil throughout history involving both Pagan and Christian belief systems. [ [ "Touch Wood"] ] Some believe it has to do with knocking on the wooden cross. [ [ "Knocking on Wood"] ] Another explanation for this practice is the pagan belief that spirits (dryads) lived in trees. [ [ Dryads by Mischa F. Lindemans, "Encyclopedia Mythica"] ] By knocking on the wood of a tree while making some sort of a bold statement, the speaker could prevent the spirit from hearing him and stop the spirit from interfering Fact|date=November 2007 or out of respect for the wood spirit, touching a tree indicated seeking protection from the particular spirit. [ [ "Touch Wood"] ]

However historian Steve Roud [Roud, Steve (2004). "A Pocket Guide to Superstitions of the British Isles". London: Penguin. ISBN 0-14-051549-6] finds no evidence in the British Isles for the earlier theories, suggesting that the superstitions have not been traced beyond children's games of tag of the early nineteenth century. According to Roud, the earliest documented references to "touching wood" are from 1805 and 1828 and concern chasing games like "Tiggy-touch-wood", where you are safe from being "tagged" if you "touch wood", says Roud, "'Tiggy-touch-wood" was an extremely well-known game, and it is more than likely that the phrase was passed into everyday language.



In some versions of the superstition, it is better to touch the underside of wooden furniture, as this is unfinished and closer to the real wood. Others believe that knocking on the underside of the wooden surface will avoid hitting wood gnomes or tree dryads on their heads, which may anger the creature and counteract the good luck.


According to Greek Orthodox Patriarch, Prof Anastasios Zavales, [ [ Prof Anastasios Zavales PhD ThD, Greek Orthodox Archdiocese of America, Ecumenical Patriarchate.] ] the custom arose from the times of Emperor Constantine when the faithful first touched the cross in public processions, for blessing and healing. The "wood of life" was touched three times in connection with the Trinity. After the central cross was placed in Constantinople, he says, the practice was to touch any wooden cross or crucifix and later extended to include anything made of wood. He points the origins to Jerusalem in the fourth century AD with the wood of rosaries and prayer beads being "a much later innovation".


Early rosaries were made of oak and were fingered in time of distress or trouble. Holding, touching or rubbing the wooden rosary or its wooden crucifix when danger was near became a common way for Catholics to deal with hardships and difficulties becoming "touch wood". [ [ from "A World of Stories" by William Bausch] ]

International use

In Bulgaria "чукам на дърво" ("chukam na durvo") - meaning the same.

In Brazil this expression exists: "bater na madeira". It has the exact same meaning.

In Czech this exists as well, being said "klepat na dřevo". The meaning is the same.

In Denmark "bank under bordet" (knock under the table) is a commonly used phrase, which is often used as a part of the phrase "7-9-13, bank under bordet", where "7-9-13" is just another way to say touch wood.

In Germany the version "auf Holz klopfen" (knock on wood) can be accompanied by the phrase "Toi, toi, toi" (probably derived from the Old German word for 'Devil') which is still used as a charm to ward off evil or as a good luck charm for thespians out of superstition that wishing an actor good luck brings the opposite.

In Finland "koputtaa puuta" is used for the same purpose. It also means exactly the same as the English equivalent.

In France "toucher du bois" is used and has the same meaning.

In Greece "chtipa xilo" is used for the same purpose. It also means exactly the same as the English equivalent ("knock on wood").

In Italy a similar superstition exists, it's said "Toccare ferro" and the meaning is similar: one must touch metal, preferably iron.

In Iran it's said "bezan be takhte ( _fa. بزن به تخته)" and the meaning is similar; a wish that something will or will not occur. (Also to ward off the evil eye.)

In Malta the version "touch wood" is mostly used and one must touch wood when saying it.

In Netherlands, the term "afkloppen" (knock off), is used, sometimes accompanied by "op ongeverfd hout" (on unpainted wood).

In Norway, the term "bank i bordet" (knock the table), is used. In Norway, it is also sometimes used to stress that you're telling the truth (akin to saying "I swear to god that...").

In Poland the versions of this charm is "odpukać w niemalowane" [knocking on unpainted (wood)] , as the name of the charm suggests the charm only works if one knocks on unpainted wood.

In Portugal, the version, which has a similar meaning to the others all around the world, is called "bater na madeira", and when someone does this, "lagarto, lagarto, lagarto" (lizard) is uttered.

In Romania, the phrase "a bate în lemn" is often used and has the same meaning.

In Russia, the phrase "постучи по деревянному" is often used and has the same meaning.

In Sri Lanka, the phrase "touch wood" is rarely used within English speaking community. In Sri Lankan English, the phrase "touch gold" is more frequently used to mean the same.

In Switzerland the Swiss German version is "Holz alange" (touch wood) – but while saying it, knocking on or tapping wood is still required. A simple touch is not enough.

In Sweden, the phrase "ta i trä" (touch wood) is commonly used as a part of the phrase "peppar peppar, ta i trä" (pepper pepper, touch wood), the double "pepper" also being used to ward off a temptation of fate. It's often shortened to just saying "peppar peppar" while knocking on wood.

In Spain, it's said "Tocar madera", and the meaning is the same, a charm to bring good luck. In Catalonia, and in other Catalan-speaking areas, such as Balearic Islands and Land of Valencia, the expression used is "tocar ferro" (literally, touch iron), but it has the same meaning.

In Turkey "tahtaya vur" (knock on wood) is used. Usually, someone else will answer: "Şeytan kulağına kurşun" (May somebody melt some lead into Satan's ear).

Muslims use a similar phrase in Arabic saying "Insha' Allah." Although it doesn't mean "touching wood" literally, it means "as per Allah's desire". "Nauzubillah min zalik" is commonly used to say "May Allah protect from harm".

In Ukraine, the phrase "постукай по чомусь дерев'яному" is often used and has the same meaning.

In the United Kingdom and its colony Australia the term "touch wood" is used; whereas the USA term "knock on wood" is unknown.

In Hong Kong, an ex-colony of the United Kingdom, the term "touch wood" has been used in everyday conversation, mixing with Cantonese.

Some tradition has it that knocking "up" on wood would awaken and release the (benevolent) wood faeries that dwelt there. This is probably based on Germanic forest-dwelling mythology.

Among Syrian Orthodox and Christians in Lebanon, knocking on wood is a common expression. Some take it to mean that we thank Christ (of the Cross) for all of their blessings. Often while actually knocking on wood people will say "b-ism as-salib" meaning "By the name of the cross."

Cultural references

* Mrs. Swithin questions the origins of the expression in Virginia Woolf's "Between the Acts"
* Sam sings a song with "just knock on wood" in "Casablanca".
* The Eddie Floyd/Steve Cropper written "Knock on Wood" has been covered by over a hundred different recording artists.
* The Mighty Mighty Bosstones have a song called "The Impression That I Get" about knocking on wood.


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