Q. Well, why do we
A. The expression - or something similar - is used by many people around the world, usually accompanied by the touching of a wooden item, in order to ward off bad karma or appeal to whichever spirit is in charge of doling out good and bad luck.
Q. But why wood
A. Well, there are a number of ideas as to the origins of the superstition, all of which contradict the others. One strong contender is that it derives from the pagan belief that malevolent spirits inhabited wood, so that if you expressed a hope for the future you should touch, or preferably knock loudly on, wood to prevent the spirits from hearing your plans and then coming out to put the kybosh on them. In fact, one Dutch tradition that is still practised is the touching of the underside of a wooden table at such times, which is perhaps a survival from Europe's pagan past.
Q. So it's a pre-Christian thing, then
A. Hmm, possibly, but it's all a bit vague. In some of the ancient pantheistic religions trees, rivers and all manner of natural things were supposedly inhabited by spirits or deities, and it is known that such practices as touching a tree to seek the spirit's blessing and/or ward off its wrath did evolve in Europe. Trees were held in high esteem, particularly in Celtic and Norse mythologies - both of which have greatly influenced folk traditions in the British Isles - and to touch a tree with respect indicated that the person was looking for protection from that particular wood spirit. But, again, there is no empirical evidence that such customs actually survived the adoption of Christianity.
Q. So no Christian angle
A. Just to confuse you, yes, there is. Yet another theory runs that the present habit derives from the idea that to touch a wooden item symbolises touching the wood of the cross. However, in a further twit, this, if it is true, may well be a Christianisation of the pagan ritual.
Q. Whichever way, it's an ancient superstition
A. Well, not necessarily. There is not actually any documentation to suggest that the modern use of the phrase 'touch wood' dates from any earlier than the late 19th century, as the oldest citation in the Oxford English Dictionary dates only from the early 20th century. In fact, one final theory has it that there is nothing supernatural or religious about it all, and that it is merely the legacy of a children's game such as tig, tag or it, where 'touching wood' or being 'in den' or saying 'keys' prevented one from being caught.
Q. Anything else
A. Some people touch their own heads when uttering the expression, which is perhaps more of a light-hearted action referring to their intelligence - or lack of it at certain times. Ho! Ho!
Q. And knock on wood
A. Just the American version of the British touch wood.
Q. Hence the song, then
A. 'Knock on Wood' Eddie Floyd's classic 1965 Stax hit - though you younger things may be more familiar with the 1978 Amii Stewart discovatin' version, and there have been covers by singers as diverse as David Bowie and James Taylor (bet that one 'rocked', eh ) - was all about the fear of losing the woman whose love was 'like thunder, lighting', and he felt the only thing to do was to 'knock on wood' for luck to make sure he didn't lose her.
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By Simon Smith