Knock on Wood
“Knock on Wood” – where did this come from and what’s the purpose?
By Charles L Harmon
Knock on wood, the glue will hold it together until l I can buy a new part to replace it. That’s a particular instance I remember saying the phrase in question, but how many times have you heard someone say “knock on wood” in order to help bring some good luck to whatever they are knocking on wood for? I’ll bet at least several times over the years, but when you hear it you really don’t give it a second thought.
Maybe you use that term yourself to help cement the wish you had when you knocked on wood. Sounds funny doesn’t it, knocking on wood? Where did this old custom or superstition originate?
Knock on wood or knocking on wood is a gesture made to prevent ill fortune or reverse action. Often it is said following a boastful statement on one’s accomplishments or good fortune. Likewise people say it after an expression or exultation of some kind.
To be on the safe side of Lady Luck superstitious people believe or it is said that knocking three times increases the chance of avoiding bad luck. That’s why when you see some knocking on wood they often make three knocks. It’s probably not because they are superstitions, but just imitating others when they do it. Usually people do knock three times and they have no idea why or even think twice when they knock three times.
At one time in the very distant past trees were thought to be the abodes of god. These supernatural beings as they were, behaved kindly when properly approached. They were well-inclined to protect those who contacted them. The tree, which was wood was touched when asking for favors and touched again in appreciation of favors received.
Ancient Egyptians endorsed the belief that the evergreen tree was the symbol of everlasting life. Through the centuries wood has been touched for different reasons. Often the wood objects were shaped to meet the belief of the superstitious. For example a well-known wooden object is the small wooden cross. In Medieval times Christians wore them and touched them in reverent apology when they caught themselves boasting. Such touching action was to remind themselves of a sense of humility. This was in keeping with the humble ways of Christ, who was crucified on a wooden cross.
No so very long ago others believing that unseen supernatural beings were always about and jealous of the happiness or success of mankind knocked on wood to prevent these kill-joys from hearing any good news.
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Knocking on wood is usually done on some close wooden object. It could be virtually any wooden object since the important part is it being made of wood and knocking on it. Knock on wood, it is really a part of everyday life and we never think much about it. Yes we know it’s probably a superstition, but who cares. Now in other countries some superstitions rule, but generally not here in the United States. Generally when knocking on wood it is done automatically without even thinking about it. It’s often a spontaneous reaction when the occasion arises where you need some good luck because of something you’ve done or something good has happened to you that you did not expect.
There are other interpretations of knocking on wood. One such interpretation is based on the notion that things work or happen in reverse. That’s a deep-seated idea from long ago and many other ideas are related to it. Knock on wood or touching wood as a charm or gesture is founded on this presumption of things happening in reverse and its intention is to prevent joy from turning to sorrow. There is a corresponding saying you are probably familiar with which is also related to things that have opposites; “There is always a silver lining to a dark cloud.”
Long ago the rosary with its rose beads was carved out of wood from special trees and was touched when asking favors or giving thanks for favors granted. Today it is still used for that same function.
Copyright © Charles L Harmon
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Knocking on wood, or touching wood refers to the tradition in western folklore of literally touching/knocking on wood, or merely stating that you are, in order to ward off evil or to avoid tempting fate. It is usually done after making a favorable observation, a boast, or speaking of one’s own death.
- In some countries, such as Spain, it is traditional to literally touch wood after an event occurs that is considered to bring bad luck, such as crossing paths with a black cat or walking under a ladder or noticing it’s Friday the 13th. This is usually done when there’s no salt nearby to spill over your shoulder, which is considered the “traditional” way of avoiding the bad luck caused by those situations.
- In Italy it is said that “tocca ferro” (touch iron) is used, especially after seeing a nun.
Old English Folklore also implied that “knocking on wood” referred to when people spoke of secrets they went into the isolated woods to talk privately and “knocked” on trees when they were talking, which was supposed to also hide their communication from evil spirits who would be unable to hear when they knocked.
Here is a question and answer submitted to Yahoo Answers concerning knocking on wood. Generally answers and also questions submitted to Yahoo answers are submitted by non experts so answers to questions are to be looked at with a bit of skepticism and caution.
Questions about “knock on wood” Superstition
A question about luck?
1. Why do people say “knock on wood” to bring good luck?
I answered this question about black cats earlier, look around for the other person who asked it. As for knock on wood:
“To touch wood or knock on wood is a superstition action to ward off any evil consequences or bad luck, perhaps because of some recent action you’ve taken or untimely boasting about your good fortune (“I’ve never been in danger of drowning, touch wood”); it can also be a charm to bring good luck.
The origin is unknown, though some writers have pointed to pre-Christian rituals involving the spirits of sacred trees such as the oak, ash, holly or hawthorn. There is, I’m told, an old Irish belief that you should knock on wood to let the little people know that you are thanking them for a bit of good luck. There’s also a belief that the knocking sound prevents the Devil from hearing your unwise comments. Others have sought a meaning in which the wood symbolizes the timber of the cross, but this may be a Christianisation of an older ritual. It wasn’t always wood that was lucky: in older days, iron was also thought to have magical properties, and to touch iron was an equivalent preventative against ill-fortune.
The phrase itself is relatively modern, as the oldest citation for the British version of the phrase, touch wood, that I can find dates only from 1899. The American equivalent knock on wood is roughly contemporary, with my first example from 1905.”
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