“Knock on wood.”

Nicole and I were discussing living arrangements this coming fall. We were talking about someone we dislike and she said, “Just watch, she’s probably going to be living exactly where we are.” And I said, “Nicole! Don’t say that!” She exclaimed, “Sorry! Sorry! Knock on wood!” When she said this, she first knocked on her own head, on her temple, and then proceeded to knock on her presumably wooden dresser.

Lauren, a girl on Nicole’s high school basketball team, taught her this superstition. They were sitting on the basketball court before a game, and one of the girls on the team said something that would jinx the game (Nicole cannot recall exactly what the girl said). Lauren automatically said, “Knock on wood!” She then knocked on her temple and then knocked the wooden basketball court floor. Ever since then, Nicole has performed this superstition. Nicole says she does not really think she is superstitious; it is just a habit now. She does not think the superstition really means anything. However, the fact she does it implies she does believe in the superstition. Knocking on wood is an example of a conversion superstition. One knocks on wood to reverse the bad luck that would come from something she or someone around her said. Psychologically, she does it because it makes her feel better. She figures there is no harm in warding off bad luck by performing this superstition. The reason behind the performance of the superstition has a lot to do with the fact that she feels there are things outside her control. She feels almost helpless against things like bad luck, so she regains some power and control by knocking on wood.

According to page 363 of the American Heritage Dictionary of Idioms, knocking on wood “expresses a wish that something will or will not occur.” I agree with Nicole and the dictionary’s definitions. Knocking on wood is expressing a wish that bad luck will not occur, or that good luck will occur. It is interesting to note that this “expression alludes to an ancient superstition that literally knocking on or touching wood will ward off evil spirits.” Nowadays, knocking on wood does not have so much to do with evil spirits; it has to do with warding off bad luck.

Nicole’s version of the superstition surprised me because she does not just knock on wood; she also knocks on her temple. I have never heard nor seen anyone knock on his or her temple in addition to knocking on wood. She said that when she is not near wood, she just knocks her temple. She informed me that all of her friends perform the superstition this way. Where I grew up in the Bay Area, California, nobody knocks on their temple, too; people only knock on wood. If someone asked me to describe Nicole’s group of friends from Rancho Palos Verdes, I might mention this superstition because it is so distinct from the superstition I know. I would identify them as “temple-knockers.” Perhaps other people who are not from the Bay Area would identify people from the Bay as “only wood-knockers.” Nicole’s version, to me, shows multiplicity and variation. I had never encountered a different version of the superstition before and now I realize there must be many different ways to carry out this superstition.

Annotation: Ammer, Christine. The American Heritage Dictionary of Idioms. Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 1997.