“Kick the bucket” is one of numerous English euphemisms for death. There are various theories about the origin of the phrase; the most likely involves an overhead suspension beam used to slaughter livestock. This has been connected with the gibbet, or gallows, a device that was once employed in public executions. “Kick the bucket” has been in use since at least the 18th century, long enough to inspire related popular expressions. These include “kick off” and “bucket list.”
The English language is famous for its euphemisms, indirect and often humorous expressions for common experiences. Euphemisms for death and sexual subjects are particularly numerous, probably because these topics were not considered fit for polite conversation in past eras. Other curious English expressions for death include “bite the dust,” “buy the farm,” and “croak.” “Kick the bucket” was first recorded in 1785, in a dictionary of commonly used phrases. This means the term may be far older; the connection of “bucket” with executions goes back to at least the 16th century.
The most likely explanation of “kick the bucket” connects it with the French word buque, meaning a wooden beam or yoke. This came into English as the word “bucket,” unrelated to the word’s more common meaning of “pail;” “bucket” still carries this unique meaning in some regions of England. In pre-industrial times, it was common for farmers or butchers to suspend a hog from an overhead beam prior to slaughter. The animal would often struggle during this process, knocking its hooves against the suspending beam. In other words, it would literally kick the bucket.
Another explanation connects the phrase with hangings, either those of suicides or of public executions. One theory is that the victim would stand on a bucket that would then be kicked aside. More likely, the “bucket” referred to the overhead beam used to suspend the noose, otherwise known as a gibbet or gallows. Shakespeare uses the word “bucket” in this way in his play Henry IV Part II, first performed in 1597. Of course, a hanging victim would be unable to kick that particular bucket, leading language authorities to doubt this explanation.
The phrase is often used in popular culture. In the 1963 film comedy It’s a Mad, Mad, Mad, Mad World, a character actually kicks a bucket as he dies. A hit film in 2007 was called The Bucket List, after a checklist of activities two terminally ill men wish to complete before "kicking the bucket.” The film was a worldwide hit, and resulted in the phrase “bucket list” entering the English language.