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Q&A: The origin of “bucket list”

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Each week here at the Australian Writers’ Centre, we dissect and discuss, contort and retort, ask and gasp at the English language and all its rules, regulations and ridiculousness. It’s a celebration of language, masquerading as a passive-aggressive whinge about words and weirdness. This week, here's a bang for your bucket…

Q: Hi AWC, would you like to hear my bucket list?

A: Is this a list of buckets that you use for domestic jobs around the house?

Q: No silly, it’s a list of things I’d like to do and places I’d like to visit before I die!

A: Ah yes, the bucket list.

Q: Actually, it seems that everyone talks about bucket lists these days. Where did the name come from?

A: Well, if it’s related to things to do before you die, where do you think it might have come from?

Q: Kicking the bucket?

A: Correct! The phrase, “to kick the bucket” – an idiom for dying – has been kicking around since the 1780s.

Q: Why a bucket?

A: That’s a good question. One theory had people hanged while standing on a bucket. Kick the bucket and its curtains.

Q: Wait, are we hanging a person or hanging curtains?

A: Oh sorry, no, we meant “curtains” to mean “the end”. This meaning dates back to 1912 – no doubt inspired by the curtain that comes down at the end of a theatre performance.

Q: Oh that reminds me of the actor who couldn’t stop falling through the floor during performances. The doctor said it was just a stage he was going through.

A: Hilarious. Shall we continue?

Q: Yes please.

A: The other theory of “bucket” in relation to death is from an older use of the word, as a beam (French “buquet”) from which slaughtered animals were hung by the hooves. And so, they would literally kick this beam in death.

Q: Charming.

A: It’s always good to know the provenance of your food.

Q: Indeed. So, a “bucket list” – I take it that term appeared soon after “kick the bucket” then?

A: Not quite.

Q: Maybe after one of the World Wars then?

A: Nope. It might surprise you to learn that the “bucket list” was not a thing until 2007.

Q: Wait, what?! That can’t be right. That’s so recent!

A: Yep. Unlike many terms in English, this one’s origins are jarringly clear. In fact, we even have the name of the person responsible. Justin Zackham.

Q: Wait, so this Zackham chap just invents the bucket list?

A: Not quite. He wrote a movie called The Bucket List. It starred Jack Nicholson and Morgan Freeman and came out in December 2007. It received mixed reviews, made a profit for the studio, but it’s likely that many people have never seen it.

Q: I think I’ve heard of the film – but assumed it was named after the list, not the other way around!

A: While the idea of a bucket list had been used occasionally in computing before, it wasn’t until the movie came along that it was used in the context of things you’d like to do before you die.

Q: But 2007… it’s practically a baby.

A: It helped that it came out right around the beginning of social media apps like Facebook, YouTube, Twitter and Instagram. By 2012 – just four years after first appearing, it had made its way into the Oxford and Merriam-Webster dictionaries.

Q: Why does it feel like the term has been around for much longer?

A: Saturation for one – the term filled a niche that the world was desperate for. Buzzfeed lists, travel blogs, wellness, career sites – they all pounced on this catchy term. We’ve seen it go on to become a catch-all list of life goals, dreams, places and aspirations.

Q: So the right term at the right time?

A: Exactly!

Q: Well, thanks for that. If you’ll excuse me, I’m off to go sky-diving over the Grand Canyon, before swimming with dolphins at the Great Barrier Reef, running a marathon and learning to play an instrument…

Do you have a question you’d like us to explore? Email it to us today!

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