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What does It Mean to "Knock on Wood"?

Mary McMahon
Updated May 23, 2024
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People often knock on wood when they make a statement that seems to tempt fate. The idea is that knocking on wood will ward off evil spirits. Superstitions surrounding evil spirits are ancient, and the idea of touching wood to avoid them is also quite old. Many people in Northern Europe and North America knock so reflexively that they do not even realize that they are doing it, showing how ingrained the tradition is in these cultures.

In most cases, it is believed that one must literally knock on wood to deflect bad luck. People usually knock with a closed fist, creating a rapping noise like knocking on a door. In other cases, people may say “knock on wood” or “touch wood” after making a potentially risky statement such as “it doesn't look like rain today.”

The exact origins of the tradition are unclear. In many pagan traditions, fairies and other creatures were said to live in the trees. In these instances, people might knock wood to request good luck, or to distract spirits with evil intentions. This idea may have been adapted by Christians, as many early pagan beliefs were, and certainly some people associate knocking on wood with the cross. Pieces of wood or the true cross may be carried around for good luck by some people as well.

By the 1800s, many children's games included an exhortation to knock on wood, although the idea was probably widespread long before these games were popular. The tradition of knocking for luck seemed to become much more widely accepted as these children's games entered the popular imagination, however. By the 1900s, British and American people were both knocking on wood for good fortune.

People knock on wood in one of two contexts. In the first, someone makes a statement about something which they hope does not come true, and they knock to avoid that event. In the other instance, someone makes a statement about a desired outcome, and they perform the act either to pay homage to lucky spirits or to ward off bad ones, depending on personal belief. While knocking on wood is unlikely to have a scientific basis, it seems to be a relatively harmless superstition, and some people believe that it is better to be safe than sorry when it comes to luck.

Language & Humanities is dedicated to providing accurate and trustworthy information. We carefully select reputable sources and employ a rigorous fact-checking process to maintain the highest standards. To learn more about our commitment to accuracy, read our editorial process.
Mary McMahon
By Mary McMahon

Ever since she began contributing to the site several years ago, Mary has embraced the exciting challenge of being a Language & Humanities researcher and writer. Mary has a liberal arts degree from Goddard College and spends her free time reading, cooking, and exploring the great outdoors.

Discussion Comments

By stolaf23 — On Jan 18, 2011

@widget2010, right, along with Christmas trees, gargoyles, the time of the year of Christmas, and lots of other traditions that mark many of the major Christmas holidays. It's funny just how much the Christian tradition owes its spread to Pagan traditions whose names we don't even know now; even as a Christian, I find that a little sad.

By widget2010 — On Jan 17, 2011

I had never heard the Pagan or Christian origins before; for sure, my really devout friend are not knocking on wood types. However, it does seem likely that if the Pagan part of the story is true, the early church may have adopted it like so many other Pagan traditions that we now believe to be Christian.

By anon55001 — On Dec 03, 2009

At the end of the day, if you truly believe in luck, which you should, be sure to knock on wood.

Mary McMahon

Mary McMahon

Ever since she began contributing to the site several years ago, Mary has embraced the exciting challenge of being a...

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