Monday, November 7, 2011

The Bucket List

The Bucket ListThe Bucket List (Image via was surprised to learn recently that the phrase bucket list doesn’t have a history before the 2007 movie starring Morgan Freeman and Jack Nicholson. Experience has taught me to be wary of the Recency Illusion, so I was sure that the phrase had existed for some time — especially considering how often and easily it is used today — but that it had just existed outside my local vocabulary.

But I started poking around, and it looked like bucket list didn’t exist at all in the previous century. I posed the question to Twitter, and @KoryStamper, associate editor at Merriam-Webster, verified that their etymologists point to the movie as the first appearance of the phrase.

A bucket list, of course, is a list of things one would like to do before one “kicks the bucket,” or dies. The phrase kick the bucket has a more nebulous history. The Facts on File Encyclopedia of Word and Phrase Origins, 4th Edition, points out two distinct possible etymologies:

The first comes from suicides. To hang oneself, one might flip a bucket over, climb the bucket, secure the noose, and then kick the bucket out from under oneself. Kicking the bucket becomes the suicide’s last act.

This story makes perfect sense and ties up the etymology in a nice, neat little package, which probably means it isn't true.

A second possible source is a little less morbid, but only a little. It used to be that a pig up for slaughter would have its throat slit open and then its heels tied to a wooden block. The rope from the block would be tossed over a pulley, and the pig hoisted up into the air to “drain.” The action of hoisting the dying pig was akin to pulling a bucket of water from a well, and so the block of wood came to be called a bucket (or, in another version, the French word buque, meaning a yoke). The swine in the throes of death would have been “kicking against the bucket.”

Still another theory is that the phrase comes from a Catholic custom. After death, a body would be laid out with the holy water bucket at the feet of the deceased. Friends and family would come to pray over the body and then sprinkle it with holy water. The bucket, then, became associated with the feet of the dead.

Regardless of how the phrase came about, kicking the bucket, unlike bucket list, has been around for a few centuries. I don’t even hope to be around for a few centuries, but I don’t plan on kicking the bucket anytime soon. But, to quote Eeyore, "it's my birthday," and I'm feeling old, so I started putting together my bucket list. There’s a link to it up at the top there.

What strange and interesting things are on your bucket list?
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