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.

Look at other dictionaries:

  • iron —    The power of iron to repel evil is very well attested in English folklore, and throughout Europe all sorts of domestic objects, and even lumps of scrap iron, were placed in homes, stables, and cowsheds as defences against *witchcraft and… …   A Dictionary of English folklore

  • sailor, touching —    A generally reported belief is that it is lucky to touch a sailor, or at least a sailor s collar. In most cases it appears to be females, or children, who are actually willing to carry out the action, which may say more about the gender based… …   A Dictionary of English folklore

  • Knocking on wood — Knocking on wood, and the spoken expression knock on wood or touch wood are used to express a desire to avoid tempting fate after making some boast or speaking of one s own death.The expression is usually used in the hope that a good thing will… …   Wikipedia

  • USS Wood (DD-317) — was a Clemson class destroyer in the United States Navy following World War I. She was the first Navy ship named for Navy Surgeon General William M. Wood (1809–1880).History Wood was laid down on 23 January 1919 at San Francisco, California, by… …   Wikipedia

  • performing arts — arts or skills that require public performance, as acting, singing, or dancing. [1945 50] * * * ▪ 2009 Introduction Music Classical.       The last vestiges of the Cold War seemed to thaw for a moment on Feb. 26, 2008, when the unfamiliar strains …   Universalium

  • Types of gestures — Gestures are a form of body language or non verbal communication.Although some gestures, such as the ubiquitous act of pointing, differ little from one place to another, most gestures do not have invariable or universal meanings, having specific… …   Wikipedia

  • literature — /lit euhr euh cheuhr, choor , li treuh /, n. 1. writings in which expression and form, in connection with ideas of permanent and universal interest, are characteristic or essential features, as poetry, novels, history, biography, and essays. 2.… …   Universalium

  • printing — /prin ting/, n. 1. the art, process, or business of producing books, newspapers, etc., by impression from movable types, plates, etc. 2. the act of a person or thing that prints. 3. words, symbols, etc., in printed form. 4. printed material. 5.… …   Universalium

  • Glossary of nautical terms — This is a glossary of nautical terms; some remain current, many date from the 17th 19th century. See also Wiktionary s nautical terms, Category:Nautical terms, and Nautical metaphors in English. Contents: A B C D E F G H I J K L M N O P Q R …   Wikipedia

  • biblical literature — Introduction       four bodies of written works: the Old Testament writings according to the Hebrew canon; intertestamental works, including the Old Testament Apocrypha; the New Testament writings; and the New Testament Apocrypha.       The Old… …   Universalium