kick the bucket / bucket list

This evocative phrase meaning to die is of uncertain etymology. The most likely explanation is that it does not refer to a washing tub or pail, the sense of bucket that most of us are familiar with. Instead, it comes from another sense of bucket meaning a yoke or beam from which something can be hung. The imagery evoked by the phrase is that of an animal being hung up for slaughter, kicking the beam from which it is suspended in its death throes.

This sense of bucket probably comes from the Old French buquet, meaning a tr├ębuchet or balance. The more familiar sense of pail is likely from the Old French buket, meaning a tub or pail.

Shakespeare uses this sense of the word in Henry IV, Part 2 (III.ii.261):

Swifter then hee that gibbets on the Brewers Bucket.

The imagery here is of someone hanging pails or casks of beer or ale on a yoke on another man’s or men’s shoulders. Shakespeare’s use of the verb to gibbet implies a gallows, as this verb was not a simple synonym for hang, but rather only used in reference to the gallows or to stringing someone up for moral opprobrium. The line is in the context of Falstaff describing Thomas Wart, a recruit to the army, saying his thin and death-like appearance is ideal for the army because in the speed and heat of battle, he is too thin for a musketeer to actually hit.

The earliest known use of the phrase to kick the bucket is from Grose’s 1785 Classical Dictionary of the Vulgar Tongue, where it is glossed as:

To kick the bucket. to die. He kicked the bucket one day; he died one day.

It is often suggested that the term refers to a hanging, where the hanged stands on a pail which is then kicked out from under him. There is no evidence to support this and it probably got its start as speculation attempting to make sense of the phrase long after the sense of bucket meaning beam was forgotten.

The term bucket list, a list of things one wants to do before one dies, derives from kick the bucket, but it’s of much more recent origin. It comes from Rob Reiner’s 2007 film The Bucket List, starring Jack Nicholson and Morgan Freeman. The term bucket list appears in 2006, before the movie’s release, but the early citations are all in reference to the film.


Sources:

Oxford English Dictionary, second edition, 1989 (with September 2013 additions), s. v. bucket, n.2; gibbet, v.

The Riverside Shakespeare, second edition, edited by G. Blakemore Evans, 1997, 948.

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