Why People Knock On Wood & Whether Or Not This Superstition Actually Works

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woman knocking

Your friend hopes for good luck and neither of you wants anything bad to happen. In the middle of your conversation, your superstitious beliefs take over, and suddenly you're knocking on wood to ward off bad luck.

We've all heard the expression "knock on wood" before, but many of us are still unsure what this means, or where this particular superstition originated.

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So, let's break down the meaning and origin of the expression "knocking on wood."

Why do people knock on wood?

In cultures that use this practice, people knock on wood to ward off bad luck, and welcome in wealth or fortune. In modern times, it's believed that if you knock on wood when making a statement about being lucky, you won’t lose your luck and are effectively protecting yourself from jinxing that luck.

The expression is most commonly used when the stakes are high.

When talking about something important and feeling like those things are too good to be true, one might say "knock on wood" after telling others of their good fortune. Some might even go as far as actually knocking on something wooden, like a table or door, while saying the expression.

For example, someone who went to a job interview that went well might say something along the lines of, "I’m pretty sure I got the job, but knock on wood." Or, a person whose terrible migraine just went away might say to themselves, "Thank goodness my migraine is finally gone, knock on wood."

The knock on wood superstition has unknown origins, but has been part of the vernacular in Britain since at least the 19th century. Some link the tradition to ancient pagan cultures, who believed spirits lived in wood and trees. Knocking on the wood was thought to call on spirits for protection, or ward off evil spirits.

Others believe the tradition may have originated from wooden crucifixes or a children's game called "Tiggy Touchwood," where players would touch a piece of wood to avoid being caught in tag.

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Does knocking on wood really work?

Because knocking on wood is a superstition, there's no indication that saying the phrase or physically knocking on wood actually makes any difference. However, there's also no doubt that it can give someone a peace of mind.

In fact, studies have actually shown that knocking on wood can lessen our fears, rather than preventing bad things from happening to us. In one study from 2014, researchers found that superstitions like this "exert force away from one's representation of self" and are "effective for reducing the anticipated negative consequences following a jinx."

A separate study from 2010 looked at how having good luck charms can increase a person's confidence, leading to setting higher goals and expectations.

And this isn't a practice that's limited to Western culture, either. Believe it or not, countries all over the world have their own knocking on wood superstition that they practice.

In Portugal, a person knocks on wood three times after explaining something bad happening, without speaking a word; this is known as "bater na madeira," which translates to "knock on wood."

In Denmark, one knocks under a table while saying "syv, ni, tritten" (translating to 7, 9, 13). People in Israel say "b'lí 'áyin hará'" (translating to "without the evil eye") when mentioning their good fortune.

And in Italy, a variation of the knock on wood superstition is "tocca ferro," which means "touch iron," which is uttered after discussing anything related to death.

So, regardless of whether or not one believes in superstitions, if it makes you feel better, what harm can knocking on wood really do?

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Samantha Maffucci is an editor for YourTango who has written hundreds of articles about relationships, trending news and entertainment, numerology and astrology. Follow her on Twitter for more.