Earlier on this week, I caught myself saying “Touch wood” and started to wonder where the expression came from. Was it me being superstitious? Or was it just a cultural thing, like saying “Bless you” when someone sneezes, or “Goodbye” (= God be with you) when we leave them?
As is the way of such things, it started me down a whole warren of research rabbit holes. What’s not to like? At least for a blogger like me, rooting around for something to write about.
Where does “touch wood” come from?
I assumed that “touch wood” must be ancient, perhaps dating from pre-Christian times when sacred groves of trees were venerated.
Shades of the wonderful Asterix and his Druid, Getafix. (That’s a classic example of the humour of Asterix’s brilliant English translators, Anthea Bell and Derek Hockridge. The original French name was Panoramix which isn’t nearly as clever, I don’t think.)
According to Wikipedia, I was sort of right about the Celtic history of touching wood (or knocking on wood) as a kind of protective magic to turn away misfortune. The proper term is, apparently, apotropaic. (No, me neither.) However, there’s a later Christian explanation, relating to the wood of the cross. And an even more modern derivation, from a game of tag called “Tiggy Touchwood”.
Personally, I prefer to stick with the Celtic origin theory. “Touch wood” or “Knock on wood” seems to be in common use in loads of countries which might suggest that it is very old.
I rest my case 😉