More on idioms: kick the bucket

Last week, in discussing the antiquated idiom hang out the broom, I mentioned kick the bucket and will now return to it. In the entry bucket2, the OED, usually reticent about the origin of such phrases, mentioned what Murray considered might be the most plausible idea. I am writing this essay for two reasons. First, the OED suggested a certain etymology of kick the bucket as a possibility, while numerous books copied the suggestion without any warning signals, added bells and whistles to it, and presented the carefully worded hypothesis as fact. Second, next to the whole nine yards, this is the idiom about which I have been asked most often. Apparently, people are interested in this strange saying (and it is indeed strange). Of course, there is a third reason: perhaps some of our readers have new ideas.

Before immersing myself in the proverbial bucket, I can perhaps be allowed to say something about idioms as a “genre.” Some of them need no explanation. They are picturesque metaphors, for instance, let off steam, pull the strings, square accounts, or even it is not over until the fat lady sings. Anyone who knows the meaning of the individual words (steam, string, account, lady, and the rest) will understand such idioms. Children need some time to learn that, while dealing with them, their parents often need to let off steam, even though grownups are unlike engines or boiling kettles. The same is true of all cases in which a name is transferred from one object to another (consider something like “Death, and his brother Sleep). Other metaphors are more complicated than let off steam and foot the bill. Such are to laugh on the wrong side of one’s mouth or the shoe (boot) is on the other foot. Lose one’s marbles is even harder, because its meaning cannot be guessed. Kick the bucket belongs to the same group, but it is completely opaque. Although we may be ready to associate marbles with brain cells, we are at a loss to explain what dying has to do with a bucket and why we kick it before joining the choir invisible. The idiom is unmotivated to the speakers of Modern English, and in this respect it is like most words. Why bucket, why kick? Why kick the bucket? Etymology tries and often fails to answer exactly such questions.

An obscure idiom may sound like gibberish (for instance, all my eye and Betty Martin “nonsense”) or have an odd referent (grin like a Cheshire cat, as black as Itchul, as stiff as Tommy Harrison, and a myriad others). The additional difficulty with kick the bucket is that every European language has numerous bizarre synonyms for “to die.” The idea of death is so frightening that people often try to disguise their fear of the grim visitor by periphrasis and macabre gibes. The more successful they are, the harder it is to see through their intention. Hence croak, go west, peter out, cash in, and so forth. Kick the bucket surfaced in print only at the end of the eighteenth century, and a legend spread “in the slang fraternity” almost at once that a certain person “who, having hung himself to a beam while standing on the bottom of a pail, or bucket, kicked the vessel away in order to pry into futurity, and it was all up with him from that moment.” The story looks like folk etymology, but Murray did not reject the idea outright that kick the bucket originated with suicide.

The most surprising thing about our “metaphor” is its late appearance in print. It hardly led an underground existence for too long. Who coined it? No “familiar quotation” offers itself as the source. Is bucket another name for Davy Jones’s locker? (I have a good file on this gentleman.) Nothing points to the idiom’s nautical origin. Or is it an allusion to the coffin? Compare the Russian phrase sygrat’ v iashchik, literally “to play into the box,” that is, “to die”—the same slangy register as in English. Finally, no foreign source suggests itself. Did the idiom once have a different meaning? A man from Kent wrote that he had frequently heard this expression in the sense of making a great noise, especially a great uproar among schoolboys. Could it start as school slang? More likely, some boys used the familiar phrase facetiously and enjoyed kicking a real bucket, as in the picture illustrating this post.

Farmer and Henley, the authors of the well-known book Slang and Its Analogues, were probably the first to popularize the idea that bucket is a Norfolk term for a pulley used when pigs are killed, and this is the hypothesis that Murray did not find improbable. I will quote part of a letter published in 1904:

“When a butcher slings up a sheep or pig after killing, he fastens to the hocks of the animal what is technically known in the trade as a gambal, a piece of wood curved somewhat like a horse’s leg. This is also known in Norfolk as bucker (sic)…. Bucket, I may add, is not only well known in Norfolk in this sense, and commonly used, but with some of our folk is the only word known for the article in question. To ‘kick the bucket’, then, is the sign of the animal being dead, and the origin of the phrase may probably, if not indisputably, be referred to this source.”

I see two objections to the proposed etymology. First, why should a technical expression from East Anglia’s slaughterhouses have suddenly gained national popularity at the end of the eighteenth century? Second, no one has shown that the butchers who slung up a sheep or a pig after killing ever said that the animal had kicked the bucket. One needs the idiom in actual use, rather than the custom that vaguely refers to it. Another explanation I have in my database is totally without merit, and I’ll cite it only for completeness’ sake. Restive cows sometimes upset the pail while they are being milked. This is indeed common experience, but crying over spilled milk is not the same as giving up the ghost.

Did our idiom originate in the slaughterhouses in Norfolk, England? If so, why?
Did our idiom originate in the slaughterhouses in Norfolk, England? If so, why?

Rather curious is the following note, written in 1947 and describing an old Catholic custom:

“After death, when the body had been laid out, a cross and two lighted candles were placed near it, and in addition to these the holy-water bucket was brought from the church and put at the feet of the corpse. When friends came to pray for the deceased, before leaving the room they would sprinkle the body with holy-water. So intimately therefore was the bucket associated with the feet of deceased persons that it is easy to see how such a saying as ‘kick the bucket’ came about. Many other explanations of this saying have been given by persons who are unacquainted with Catholic customs.”

The questions are the same as before. If such is the origin of the idiom, why do we never hear it in its proper context? Did anyone among those present ever say about the deceased: “He/she has kicked the bucket”? This is of course unimaginable, for the idiom seems to have arisen as humorous slang. It is also improbable that some enemy of the Catholics should have coined this idiom, because it has always been devoid of religious overtones. And again: Why did the expression come up so late and spread so fast?

I am afraid that none of the suggestions offered so far can be taken seriously. The etymology of an idiom should fulfill certain requirements. It is not enough to pinpoint an imaginary source. We have to understand why the phrase appeared when it did (or agree that it has “always” existed, which in our case is palpably wrong), in what social milieu it came to life, and, if we think we know where it first turned up, how it spread from its center of dissemination. In dealing with the idiom kick the bucket we are unable to answer a single one of those questions. Hence “origin unknown.” I am truly sorry.

Image credits: (1) Norfolk location map. CC0 via Wikimedia Commons. (2) Boy kicking the pail. (c) blueringmedia via iStock. (3) Pork meat hanged in a butchery. (c) MilosCirkovic via iStock.

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