touching iron, wood

touching iron, wood
   The archetypal superstition in modern England, in that even many non-superstitious people will say 'touch wood', even if they do not actually carry out the action of touching wood, after boasting or making some statement which will 'tempt fate'. It is also one of the superstitions which appear in almost all popular articles on the subject, with the confident assertion that the belief goes back to the days when our ancestors worshipped trees and believed in tree-spirits. An alternative explanation is that we invoke the protection of Jesus Christ, because the cross was made of wood.
   Needless to say, there is no basis whatsoever for these explanations, beyond guesswork. Despite considerable effort, no earlier reference has been found before 1805, as 'tig-touch-wood' in R. Anderson's Ballads in Cumberland Dialect (p. 35) as noted by Opie and Tatem. The 1,200 year silence between the Christianization of England and that reference make it unlikely that the belief existed, let alone was popularly held, in that time. It is interesting to note that this, and the next quotation offered by Opie and Tatem (in 1828), are both to children's chasing games where you are safe while you are touching wood. There are many other similar games where temporary safety relies on being in a particular place or situation, with an accompanying phrase (see also touching iron, below). In the absence of further evidence, we would suggest that 'touch wood', as a phrase and as an action, comes from a popular children's game, of the late 18th century.
   'Touching iron' is recorded earlier than 'touching wood', although still not nearly back into pre-Christian times. Opie and Tatem quote from The Craftsman of 4 February 1738, 'In Queen Mary's reign, "Tag" was all the play, where the lad saves himself by touching cold iron'. Note again the children's game context. Touching metal, and saying 'Cold iron' is outwardly similar to 'touch wood' but is used nowadays in different contexts, although it is still protective. In normal use, it is enacted or said when some taboo has been broken, such as superstitious fishermen hearing the forbidden word 'pig' or 'rabbit', or factory girls from the Staffordshire Potteries who would touch metal if they met a clergyman (Folk-lore 52 (1941), 237). The picture is potentially much more complex with 'cold iron', however, than with 'touch wood' discussed above. There is a widespread, and ancient, belief that iron is an effective protection against witches, fairies, the Devil, and other sorts of evil or troublesome beings, and a range of other beliefs about iron are recorded in cures, taboos, and luck-bringing where it is not always easy to decide whether it is the object (the horseshoe, the poker) or the material (the metal) which is being invoked or is having the desired effect. See under *Iron for further discussion.
   For other beliefs involving touching for luck see *sailor, touching, *statues.
   ■ Opie and Tatem, 1989: 213, 449-50; N&Q 10s:6 (1906), 130, 174, 230-2.

A Dictionary of English folklore. . 2014.

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