As Lenore can attest, I often find myself curious about the various idioms from the English language that we all take for granted. It’s really quite remarkable how many phrases we use day to day without truly understanding their meaning or origin. In this particular case, while I was watching the second intermission of the Buffalo-Carolina hockey game, Darcy Regier, the Buffalo GM, knocked on wood before speaking about the success of his team. We’ve all done this: you knock on wood to ward off bad luck. But have you ever wondered where the heck this expression came from?

The most fascinating thing about this and many other idioms in our culture is that it can become nearly impossible to track down their roots. Over time, they become lone cultural artifacts with no identifiable origin. In the case of the phrase “knock on wood”, the most likely origin is actually in ancient druidic beliefs. In particular, it was once believed that trees, specifically the Red Oak, were inhabited by spirits which could be invoked for protection by performing a ritual involving tapping upon the tree.

Incidentally, it turns out NPR has an episode of On Words covering this exact topic, as well as exploring the phrase “gesundheit” and briefly touching on the roots of the idiom “spitting image” (believe it or not, it’s actually rooted in old traditions of black magic).