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Touch wood


Earthdragon
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There may well be pagan origins to the use of the phrase "touch wood" - usually spoken after referring to a preferred outcome that may be in the offing.

Where do you think the saying might come from? 

A few ideas are found in this article .

I always remember the joke whereby one touches one's temple as a substitute 😄

Do you use it and if so are there any beliefs that might be tapped into consciously or subconsciously?

 

 

Edited by Earthdragon
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I'd always assumed it was from a children's game, as the article ED linked to says near the end. They're often called "truce words", of which "barley" is very common. In and near Southampton, the dialect word used to be "cribs". Where I part company with the article is right at the end where it says: "But for anyone who may be superstitious, we're sure knocking on wood is no child's play." The implication is that child's play is somehow divorced from paganism, whereas I would suggest the opposite. Child's play would be a very good place to look for vestiges of old beliefs and practices.

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5 hours ago, Earthdragon said:

one touches one's temple as a substitute

Doesn't everyone tap their head when they say "touch wood"?

For some strange reason, my favourite donkey-themed pub name comes to mind - the Ass and Elbow

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I have always understood that to touch wood averts malevolent forces / entities who might frustrate a stated and hoped for outcome.

 Even in my Anglican household it was generally understood that benevolent nature spirits dwelled  within the natural material and would counter the malevolence.

 Tapping ones head, as I interpreted it,  indicated that the head in question was also made of wood.

 Gestures seem to prevail beyond their origins.  Most of my life, rotating an imaginary handle beside the head indicated a telephone call.  I’ve no idea whether it persists yet. The rotating operator call handle was obsolete three generations before mine never mind yours.

 While working in forests near Oban it was quite usual to hear any statement of future activity followed by the caveat, “If I’m spared,” frequently accompanied by a furtive glance upward even by those to whom any threat was likely to come from the opposite direction.

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1 hour ago, Moonsmith said:

I’ve no idea whether it persists yet.

There was something on the radio this morning or yesterday about outdated signs, including looking at one's wrist when talking about what time it is and miming signing a cheque when asking for a bill. (I'd never heard of the latter but apparently people do it.) It reminded me of someone pointing out that kids who have never seen a steam train move their arms like the old wheel bars (whatever they're called) when being a train.

 

1 hour ago, Moonsmith said:

“If I’m spared,”

I had an aunt, Hampshire born and bred, who always said that. I say it partly in her memory. I have an Irish colleague who still says it quite a bit and tells me it's distinctively Irish.

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2 hours ago, Stonehugger said:

outdated signs, including looking at one's wrist when talking about what time it is

I believe wristwatches are still reasonably common.

"Touch wood" was often used by my father.  He would only touch his head if there was no wood to hand.  I have no idea of its origin.  I have used it, but rarely

Is the technical equivalent of obsolete gestures the requirement to click, in order to save a document, an image of a floppy disc?

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12 hours ago, Ellinas said:

I believe wristwatches are still reasonably common

Probably moreso now with smart watches etc. I think the reference was to those strange and alien "young people" who have never worn a watch but use the gesture in any case. I remember with double-decker buses, the two storeys were refereed to as "inside" and "on top", which I always imagined came from the open top buses that come out in the summer in some places. Apparently, though, it's a survivor from the days of trams, but I wonder if it came from stagecoaches before then.

Apologies for the digression ED - this has very little to do with "touch wood". I see pagan references almost everywhere but perhaps not in the way that the parts of buses get named.

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Don’t worry SH I can digress in touch wood too.

i collect touchwood whenever I come across it.  It is a very fine powdery fibre that sometimes results from rotting birch branches.  It even comes wrapped in a waterproof package of thin bark.  It makes the most wonderful tinder for my Kelley Kettle. It will catch fire in a rainstorm.

 Should my very superstitious mother bash her elbow she would always bash the other one.  I have no idea why even in the dubious logic of the superstitiously paranoid.

 Is it my generation that sometimes use an army salute to acknowledge compliance?  I did see a (younger) friend use a glancing American salute as a form of sarcastic dismissal.

i used to use the cheque signing gesture to request a bill.  I’d be very doubtful about a gesture indicating the insertion off a card.

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My son has one of those, though I've never seen it on his wrist.

Some years ago I went to a Roman military reconstruction (might have been Ermine Street Guard or British Historical Society, as I've seen both).  Someone there had, as part if his kit, a sundial in a form similar to a pocket watch.  It was quite impressive.

Anyhow, that wrist watches are still in common use is witnessed, I think, by the number that are displayed in jewellers' windows.

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  • 7 months later...

I think touching wood probably originated with invoking the tree's spirit. Which is also where the logic of jumping a broomstick to symbolise marriage came from, you were making a declaration using a branch of a particular tree as proof of sincerity. Rather like swearing on a bible - but I digress. In an emergency, the nearest source of wood will do, and tapping the head is saying one has a wooden head. But might that, too, have implied knowledge of trees and their religious and symbolic significance? 

At home, I do touch wood for luck, as my forebears did. When I do it now though, I do have a particular tree, or variety at least, in mind. I might mentally call on one or another depending on need. At other times, I have made requests of specific trees, regularly greet, touch, and spend time with them, and leave offerings (usually water or splash of wine but Blackthorn likes blood) both when asking and when giving thanks. 

My Gran would also throw a pinch of salt over her left shoulder to blind the devil if she spilt some, the logic of which escapes me. Your Grandmother hitting her other elbow is an odd one MS, was it common in her area? but it brought to mind another odd one (and there are many among the Beduin) I encountered. If a fly should land in your drink, you should dunk it entirely before fishing it out. This apparently is because one wing holds disease and the other the antidote, so be sure to get both sides. The person, maybe Irish Catholic repeating If I'm spared reminds me also of the Beduin community, and wider Muslim community peppering their speech with God Willing, and many similar formulaic phrases. In their case it was considered a praiseworthy act, would add to your stack of good deeds and if you were lucky, might tip the balance and earn you a place in heaven. It also makes you look holy without much effort on your part. So they were all piously repeating this phrase as often as possible. Both groups had also been conditioned to fear their deity and possible afterlife though, so maybe they meant it sincerely.

We still use the word sinister without stopping to think of its origins. From Latin meaning from the left, it goes back to Augurs quartering the sky and reading omens from the direction in which the birds flew past. Anything coming from the left was bad news.

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I say touch wood and then quickly touch something wooden. If there is nothing wooden I touch my head. (Which I think of as saying my head is wood ie. stupid for not checking there was wood around when I said touch wood)

I tend to say it when I have said something else that I want to happen so that I don’t jinx it.

Eg. It’s going to be sunny tomorrow - touch wood 

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On 5/20/2021 at 11:45 PM, hedgerose said:

My Gran would also throw a pinch of salt over her left shoulder to blind the devil if she spilt some

I still do that now. I remember relatives doing it when I was growing up.

 

On 5/20/2021 at 11:45 PM, hedgerose said:

We still use the word sinister without stopping to think of its origins. From Latin meaning from the left

For some reason, I sort-of equate sinister/left with going widdershins. When I was at school we read a story that freaked me out at the time in which something bad happened if anyone travelled widdershins around something. I don't recall any of the details, but it definitely scared me big-time.

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On 5/21/2021 at 9:38 AM, Veggie dancer said:

I tend to say it when I have said something else that I want to happen so that I don’t jinx it.

Me too. Exactly that.

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Posted (edited)
On 5/20/2021 at 11:45 PM, hedgerose said:

the Beduin community, and wider Muslim community peppering their speech with God Willing

My daughter lives in Dubai and says that "inshallah" [God willing] means "I'll do it when/if I get round to it!"

Edited by Stonehugger
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I didn’t have a problem with Insha’llah, whatever we were discussing would probably get done.

 What I didn’t want to hear was: IBM:-   Insha’llah, ‘Bukra,’ and ‘Ma’lesh,

It is said with very varying degrees of sincerity and means God willing, tomorrow, whatever (who cares?)

 Salt has been very precious so spilling it mattered and was obviously the devil’s fault.

 When I tried to explain de-icing roads in the uk the first thing I was asked was, “How do you get it back?”

 How many Pagans yell or mutter, “Good God” or “Christ!” Or even “bloody”?
 

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Well, I suppose if you exclaim the name of someone else's deity, it is suitably meaningless and innocuous to the exclaimer.  Thinking about it, I occasionally use "Jesus wept" - old habit from way back, probably even my pre-Christian days, let alone pre-pagan.

Regarding "god willing", I know Christians who use that habitually, or even "DV", though it escapes me as to why strongly anti-catholic types would refer to Latin.  I do have an issue with it - for the evangelicals, it is part of their evangelising strategy to advertise their "faith" and "dependence on god".  At best (as they see it), it will give them the chance to start a "conversation" (thinly veiled personal preaching session), and at worst, it is a form of subliminal planting of a message.

And that issue is quite apart from the fact I've never seen an instance of god's will that is not, quite clearly, based on the desires of the individual human.

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Posted (edited)

Maybe DV is a bit of a code; a special handshake; a shibboleth.

(This conversation is making me think of the "wee donkey" in Line of Duty.)

Edited by Stonehugger
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On 5/24/2021 at 11:01 PM, Stonehugger said:

Maybe DV is a bit of a code; a special handshake; a shibboleth.

For some, maybe.  But others just hope to be asked what it means or why they are saying it.  It's all about conversations to evangelicals.

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