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, we're getting into woodwork…
Q: Hi AWC, one of our readers, Rezoana R, wants to know about the phrase “touch wood” and why we sometimes knock on our foreheads.
A: Okay, so let’s start by understanding that phrases like this don’t just grow on trees.
Q: Even ones that sound like they do?
A: Even those. In fact, it’s quite rare to have a phrase like this used all around the world in some way – across languages and cultures. Idioms are usually rather culture-specific beasts.
Q: So the whole world says “touch wood”?
A: Australia and Britain are actually the only ones that say “touch wood”. The rest of world favours “knock on wood”.
Q: Like the Amii Stewart disco track?
A: It’s like thunder. Lightning. The way you love me is frightening.
Q: Got it. So both “knock on wood” and “touch wood” have the same meaning though, right?
A: Yes. Both are a form of superstition – a way to avoid tempting fate and bring about (or continue) good luck.
A: “I’ve answered every quiz question correct so far, touch wood.” And: “Hopefully I’ll find out before I die, touch wood.”
Q: Gosh, that quiz escalated fast.
Q: We just win drinks vouchers in ours…
A: Anyway, sometimes while saying it, the speaker may actually touch or knock on a table or other wooden item if it’s nearby – you may have done so yourself. But it’s not necessary.
Q: Fair enough.
A: And other times they knock on their head for comic effect.
Q: Ah, that was what Rezoana wanted to know. So why do this?
A: It’s to indicate they have a head made of wood – and therefore not very smart.
Q: But Woody from Toy Story was probably the smartest character.
A: Well, that’s an exception. And in this case, if someone taps their own head when saying “touch wood” or “knock on wood”, it’s a little dose of self-deprecating humour to go with the superstition. It could be that subconsciously appearing less smart may invite more good fortune. Or it could just be funny.
Q: But why wood in the first place?
A: Good question. In German folklore, it was thought that supernatural beings lived within trees and could be called upon (by knocking) for protection. That’s one main theory.
Q: So the phrase is old then?
A: “Touch wood” was noted back in the 1600s and is older than “knock on wood” (which didn’t appear until the early 20th century).
Q: So just to recap so far – we say “touch wood” to not jinx a situation?
A: Correct. To both wish for something TO happen or NOT to happen.
Q: And it’s unusual because it’s used all around the world?
A: That’s right – regardless of nationality, religion or geography,
Q: Wow. Examples?
A: Sure. In Malaysia and Indonesia, when someone says bad things, the listener will knock on both wood and their forehead while saying a few words to drive off the negativity. Throughout the Arab world – from Iran to Egypt, Lebanon and Israel, different variations that literally translate to “knock on wood” are said, usually in hope that good fortune will continue.
Q: Any other countries?
A: We’re not out of the woods yet – there’s plenty more! Many European countries including Russia, Finland, Poland, Bulgaria, Romania, Greece, Spain, Serbia, Croatia and Turkey all have their own superstitions surrounding exact translations of “knock on wood”. Italy meanwhile prefers “tocca ferro” – to touch iron.
Q: I hope it’s not the kind that you iron shirts with. Might leave a nasty burn. Or, how do they say that in Italian? “Scoldi Oucho!”
A: Not quite… But anyway, In Brazil, you simply knock three times on wood if you hear something bad. And in other parts of Latin America, you must knock on wood that has no legs – so no tables, chairs or beds!
Q: Wow, this superstition stuff is a lot of work.
A: That’s right. But ultimately, it all comes down to knocking on or touching wood to bring good luck.
Q: And it doesn’t matter which neck of the woods you come from, it’s quite a universal thing.
A: It certainly is.
Q: Have we covered everything today?
A: We think we’ve answered all the questions, touch wood.
If you have a grammar gripe or punctuation puzzle that you’d like our Q&A to explore, email it to us today!