When uprooting of a household after a quarter of a century, things are set in motion. Life because very physical. Everything’s always displaced. Where is my knife? That knife lived in a cup on my desk for decades, used only every now and then. It is a great knife, mind you, a gift from my sister Susie—she who still remembered that a pocket knife’s a great gift for a male. Now that knife has been used on countless boxes and lost twice or three times every day. And where’s the tape? It was here just moments ago.
In midst of such turbulence, one depends on luck—and prays to St. Anthony of Padua, patron saint of finding things. Quite often, during this busy time, luck was with us, sometimes even quite amazing luck—and we would be knocking on wood. That happened again yesterday, and then we got to wondering about the origin of that phrase: “Touch wood” or “Knock on wood”—accompanied by the action.
Wikipedia calls such an action apotropaic, thus a warding-off gesture. Things get very complicated here. We knock on wood when good things happen. So what are we warding off? Well, the opposite of the good. We don’t want to claim the good as our possession, as our right. Arrogance is punished; the good may be taken away again. Therefore we knock on wood. But why are we knocking on wood? Wikipedia has the answer to that as well. It tells me that the phrase may point back to a time when people believed in benevolent tree spirits, nymphs. The Greek word for those creatures is dryads. And that word itself comes from “oak.”
The ordinary human heart is humble. It’s quite naturally so. We don’t really believe that we deserve good luck, that we merit it in any way. We acknowledge that such things are gifts from a higher source. An old friend of mine, Joe Dennis, used to say quite frequently: “Good willing and the crick don’t rise.” Apotropaic sounds too academic in such contexts. The root of touching wood was no doubt giving thanks to the wood nymphs—rather than to our egos—and hoping that the Dryads agree. The Arabs say Insha’Allah, meaning “God willing,” just like my old friend. Back then I didn’t know that phrase. Things change over time. We were fighting communism then, in Vietnam of all places. And the crick was actually rising then. I also discovered, by the way, that the Arabs also knock on wood, just like we do: “duqq al-khashab.”