“We expect to close the deal in a week… knock on wood.”
Even the least superstitious among us still “knock on wood” to avoid inviting bad luck when we’ve expressed a desire.
Not only does it have us nonsensically tapping on tables, but it has evolved to a point where we feel the need to justify cheating if there’s no wood around. Some even knock on their own heads – “Guess I’m a block head, so this is close enough.”
The point is – we are so driven by the rules of “knock on wood” that once we start the ritual, we have to finish it.
So why do we do this?
Like many sayings and customs, “knock on wood” may have its origins in religious tradition. We often invoke ancient rites as part of our modern vocabulary, even if they are totally foreign to our current belief systems. For example, even a committed atheist will say “Bless you” if someone sneezes.
Pagan Wood Nymphs
Some say the phrase derives from an ancient pagan belief that malevolent spirits possessed wood, just waiting for an opportunity to mess with people nearby. If they overheard someone expressing a desire for something, they would make it their mission to prevent that thing from happening. Knocking on their wooden abodes presumably would addle their tiny brains and they’d forget all about their pranks.
On the other hand, some ancient people believed that the trees were inhabited by friendly spirits. Touching them was a way to invoke their protection.
Another possible origin relates back to Christianity, where the “wood” in question referred to the Cross that Jesus died on. While for most, “touching wood” was symbolic of invoking the evil-conquering power of the Cross, in the days of the early Church, it may have been taken literally.
Many artifacts from the life of Jesus and the Saints were kept as holy relics, believed to be imbued with residual power, such as this alleged splinter of the True Cross pictured below. Getting your hands on a Holy Relic ensured great protection against evil.
Naturally, this also create a niche for con artists to sell off alleged pieces of “real genuine Cross”. So more people ended up walking around with bits of random unholy wood in their pockets, but this didn’t stop them from giving their charm a lucky rub whenever something bad seemed about to happen.
Of course, you can tie just about anything back to some ancient religious custom if you want to. And in fact, language nerds have pointed out that the phrase “knock on wood” didn’t show up in the written record until the 19th century, indicating its origins might be more modern and less interesting.
For example, it could have emerged from the playground game of Tag. An early variation of the game in England was known as “Tiggy Touchwood” and first established the rule that if you touched a certain door or tree, you’d get a moment’s reprieve from capture. In the minds of children and nostalgic adults, “touching wood” symbolized protection.
Whatever origin story you buy into, the fact of the matter is, at some point in your life you observed someone invoking this bizarre ritual and automatically adopted it.
Whether you actually knock on wood or just say the phrase aloud, a small part of you must believe that you’re better safe than sorry.