Even the least superstitious of us have probably rapped our knuckles on a picnic table or porch railing when we voice something that we’d rather not see come to fruition. Or we’re talking about some stroke of good luck we’ve been fortunate enough to hold on to and think that once we put the information out into the universe, our luck is bound to run out. For example, I’ll run for the nearest tree to knock on if someone asks me if I’ve ever broken a bone in fear of some misfortune falling upon me that very moment.
Does wood have special powers? Does it matter what kind of wood you knock on? Is it just a cruel joke when we knock on someone’s head in lieu of available wood? Sometimes we don’t even physically pound whatever piece of wood we find -- we just say, “Knock on wood.”
It started as a kind of religious rite. Pagan groups from anywhere from Ireland to India regarded trees as oracles or the homes of the gods, as ancient Celts thought, so they revered them. When asking for help or favors from these nature spirits or thanking them for a particularly good run of luck, worshippers would touch the tree during their prayers.
And just like we chatted about why we clink our glasses during a toast, Europeans would make noise and cause chaos in order to chase evil spirits away, since they decidedly don’t bring good luck. If the spirits weren’t around to hear about good fortune, then they couldn’t purposely ruin it!
Christians, meanwhile, considered wood sacred because of its connection to the crucifix; knocking on wood would give them the protection of Christ.
There’s also a case for the practice of knocking on wood starting later in the world without any religious context. During the Victorian era, children would play a version of tag called Tig (or Tiggy) Touchwood. During the game, a player was fair play to get tagged only when they weren’t touching a tree. So, in this case, a tree (and its wood) signified a safe zone, so the leap to wood being considered good luck isn’t a far one.
Since the British say “touch wood” instead of “knock on wood,” this makes sense for the birth of the practice across the pond, but isn’t it cool to think that spirits lived in trees?
Plus, the routine is different in other countries, so the origin of knocking on wood isn’t cut and dry, anyway. The Turks pull on an earlobe and give a piece of wood two knocks to ward off bad luck, and the Italians say “touch iron” to avoid a jinx.
No funny business happening here!